Homecoming – Hand of God

Olivia kept her claws out, taking a cautious step around the trio of grey suited agents standing in the middle of the lair. The others remained scattered around. Rob began drifting towards the gun cases, while Ben crept up on the suits behind Cyrus. The other dragon people, Red, Beth, and Hank, had claws and wings out as well. Olivia kept an ear for any hissing directed at each other or the grey suits. Just leave us alone.

“We deal with problems. And you could very well be a problem. A big one,” Smith, the woman at the head of the grey suits, said to Cyrus.

Cyrus raised an eyebrow. “When have I ever been a problem for you? No, unless you truly start angering me, I’m not a problem.”

“Your history shows otherwise.” Smith sighed. “Look, we appreciate your help. But you’ve made our bosses very nervous. You’ve never been the most predictable of people.”

“So I should apologize for existing, it seems,” Cyrus said.

“Not an apology. Right here, right now, we need to know what you’re doing.”

“I was asleep, at least until a large person was thrown on top of me,” he said, casting Olivia an aside glance. Sorry. Red was just… “Today I was meaning to visit a friend in Florida, then take a visit to China.”

“China,” repeated Smith.

“Yes.”

“I don’t suppose you’d care to elaborate.”

The two grey suits behind Smith kept their drawn weapons pointed to the floor, though they kept their feet apart in a ready stance. Beth, at least, had calmed down some, though she kept her narrowed eyes on the grey suits. Ben, Rob, Olivia, and Miya had formed a half circle around them.

“Overlord detonated a nuclear weapon in Venezuela,” said Cyrus. “That might very well force the Siberians to act.” Wait, Siberia is super far away from Venezuela, right? Or am I misremembering again?

If Smith had noticed Olivia or the others, she made no sign of it. She readjusted the silver watch on her wrist and said, “I’m curious. Why should I believe you would just give us your schedule?”

“Because I’m assuming there are very large guns pointed at this building right now, ready to level it the moment your teleporter gets you out of here. These young men and women don’t deserve to have their home destroyed on my account.”

Miya and Beth cast nervous glances at the walls. I don’t hear or smell anything outside. Cyrus let the silence hang for a moment, then continued, calm as ever, “If you’re so knowledgeable about my history, you know I tend to disappear after making a scene. I find no joy in it.”

Smith considered him for a moment. Don’t do something dumb. “Fine then,” said Smith. “I can’t argue that. I’ll let my bosses know. Don’t do that sandstorm thing again and you’ll never hear from us again.”

“Wait,” spoke up Olivia. As the grey suits turned to her, she gathered her thoughts. OK. It’s just a question. “There was another one of us,” she said, pointing to herself and Red. “She, um, she ran away when we let her out. Did anyone find her. Do you know where she is?”

Smith looked around at Red, Hank, and Beth. “That was actually a secondary reason for us coming here. There were reports of others like you. All of you are accounted for, now.”

Answer the question. “Do you know where she is?” repeated Olivia.

“She’s in custody. She’s in good hands. And before you all do anything stupid, no, she’s not going to the research institute in Houston.” Cyrus stepped aside, leaving Smith and Olivia with a clear line of sight to each other.

Olivia uncurled her hands. “What?” she demanded. “Let her go.”

“No.” Just as Olivia opened her mouth to argue, Smith said, “And I don’t remember saying it was up for debate.”

“No, no, you can’t-”

“Alright, Blackjack,” said Smith with a shake of her head. The agents vanished.

Olivia let out a snarl at the now empty space. Get back here.

Ben teleported to her as she marched for the door. “Little Bird, that ain’t worth it,” he said, nearly hanging off of her arm.

Olivia stopped and stared down at him. “How could you say that?” she asked.

“Riskin’ all out necks for someone we don’t even know? Come on, you four barely get along as is. You think addin’ another of ya will do any good? Hell, you just threw Red onto Cyrus. Another of you an’ I don’t think the rest of us would make it out in one piece.”

Olivia turned to Cyrus. “Could you-”

“Start a war with the US? No,” he said, cutting her off with a shake of his head. “You have helped me, and I am grateful for that, but you’re asking too much.”

“She was feral, Olivia,” spoke up Amanda. “Look at Hank. They’re not clones of you. She might try to kill us.”

Olivia felt her wings slump. We should still do something. Anything. Are we just giving up? She looked around to the others. Miya looked ready to jump in, but the others, dragons included, either refused to meet her gaze or showed no support. She wouldn’t hurt anyone, right? Wait, no, she tried to gouge my eyes out when we first let her out.

“Fine,” Olivia mumbled. Ben let go of her arm, teleporting to the door to check outside.

“Bastards. Just teleporting in and out without a word of warning,” muttered Miya as she joined Olivia. “Fuck them.”

“No fuckin’ kiddin’,” said Rob. His eyes lit up, and he pointed to Amanda. “Hey, Ben said somethin’ ‘bout you detectin’ Freedom Fighter’s power with black magic, right?” Amanda nodded slowly. “Notice anythin’ when those fuckers teleported in?”

Amanda’s eye widened. “I have no idea. Let’s find out!” She rolled over to another computer, Rob hovering over her shoulder.

Olivia stomped over to the table as the others dispersed. Chris would know what to do, she thought as she sat down. Miya passed by behind her, heading towards the fridge between two wooden cabinets on the floor.

“Want something?” Miya asked Olivia.

Food. “Yes please. Just… anything,” she replied.

Miya grabbed an apple for herself. She passed Olivia a package of sliced ham as she sat beside her. The moment she slid a claw through the plastic wrapping, Beth’s head swiveled in her direction from her corner in the lair. Olivia frowned. Get your own. Cyrus took a seat across the table from Miya and Olivia.

“You two seem down,” he commented.

“We lost a friend yesterday. Or was it the day before that? Shit,” said Miya with a grimace and a shake of her head.

“I’d heard.”

No one ever seems to care. “Why do you care?” asked Olivia, the question coming out harsher than she’d intended.

Cyrus raised an eyebrow. “You forget, Chris worked under me, along with Amanda over there, for half a year in the MHU. I tried to keep tabs on them as best I could, before…”

“Before Marcus dicked you over?” said Miya.

“Hrm?” You don’t remember? A small smile formed at the corners of his mouth. “Ah yes, that.”

“You’ve lived basically forever,” said Miya, “How do you deal with it?”

“You remember them as best you can,” replied Cyrus.

Miya nodded as she bit her lip. “That’s what Bob, that one officer, told me. Sounds so easy.”

“Give it time,” said Cyrus.

“You always know what to do, don’t you?” said Olivia, some resentment creeping into her voice in spite of herself. Thousands of years. I have two months, and you get thousands of years.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“No, sorry I just… I can never remember what I’m supposed to do.” Hank and Red and Beth and me keep fighting and I don’t know how to make it stop.

His gaze grew distant. “I… can’t, not truly. Bits and pieces, nothing more. I can remember what happened, not actually being there. It’s more like reading it out of a dry book, the details from it half remembered, than reading it. I know I had a wife, I can barely remember what she looked like,” he said, his voice cracking towards the end.

“So all those things you said to Slim Jim,” began Olivia. About fighting legions and Mongols and stuff?

“Could be true,” said Cyrus, finishing her sentence. “From what I can remember, what I said seems likely.” He shook his head. “The human mind was not meant to exist this long.”

“Wait, Taauth is like you too, isn’t he?” asked Miya as she sat up in her chair.

“I spent several centuries as an acne ridden teen,” he said, one hand stroking his beard. “They’re about a year for me, and I assume the same for him.”

“How does Taauth remember how to do anything, then?” asked Miya. “From what I know, the different schools of magic are radically different from one another. You can’t just tell it to go, there’s a lot of subtleties to it. All the different types of magic is like stuffing you head full of every textbook.” I can barely even get it to work.

“That is a good question. He was old when he came to rule Babylon. And he was always powerful, very powerful.” Cyrus grimaced. “I can’t remember much, I’m sorry.” Olivia resisted the urge to wrap a wing around him.

“How did you even kill him, then?” asked Miya.

“We surprised him. I crushed his head before it could reform as three of my king’s mages slowly disintegrated his body. It took four days.”

“You can remember that?” asked Olivia. I want to remember stuff.

“No, that’s an educated guess. Why so much interest in Taauth? I would have thought the twins would have had more interest.”

“He sounds terrifying,” replied Miya. “Whenever Rob or Amanda mention Overlord, they almost sound scared. He is, or was, the boogeyman of techies. He could take their whole life’s work and use it to make screaming terror-bots. This guy sounds like what Overlord was trying to do.”

Cyrus sat up straighter. “Repeat that?”

“What? I don’t know. Taauth sounds like he can do what Overlord was trying to do. Control magic, absolutely.” Olivia wrapped a wing around Miya’s shoulders as her voice grew quiet. It’s OK, he’s gone now.

Cyrus frowned. “So that’s what Taauth was afraid of.”

Miya managed a shaky laugh. “I bet. It’s kind of funny that you don’t already know everything.”

Cyrus roared with laughter for a moment. How is that funny? “I am not all knowing. In fact, I am not a smart or cunning man at all. I would more say I’m a very average man who has been alive for far too long. But I have taken up too much of your time.” He stood and left a slip of paper on the table. “If you need to contact me, call this number. If I don’t answer, just leave a message, I’ll get to it within a day at the most.”

“You’re leaving?” asked Miya. All of a sudden?

“Yes. I wasn’t lying to Smith. I do have places I need to be, Taauth will only get harder to stop as time goes on. In any event, I cannot thank you enough for your help.”

Olivia looked around the lair. No one else besides Hank paid any attention, though Hank sneered and turned away once she looked at him.

“Yeah, sure,” replied Miya. “Any time, I guess.”

Cyrus smiled and slipped outside.

Miya let out a deep breath. “Oh thank god. I couldn’t tell if he was going to get bored and flatten us or not.”

“He wasn’t that bad,” said Olivia with a frown. “People keep saying that about me, too.”

“True, true.” Miya yawned. “I’m still tired and sore,” she said. “I’m honestly thinking of just passing out for a while.”

Olivia shrugged. Reading doesn’t sound bad at all. Without a word, they headed off to the curtained off area. Miya collapsed on her bed. Olivia felt sleep overcome her as she lay in the soft beanbag, the scratched tablet falling from her hands.

***

Olivia awoke to hissing. No, let me sleep. The hissing continued. But… sleep. She grimaced and climbed to her feet, taking in the sight of Red and Beth squaring off against each other near the food. Before she had to intervene, Beth backed off, backing away towards the long table. Oh, hey, they didn’t fight. Olivia looked down at her beanbag. I could go back to sleep. It’s so comfy. But… food.

Once it didn’t look like another fight was about to break out, Rob and Amanda returned to whatever it is they had been working on lately. Olivia thought she recognized some of the railgun parts, but they could have been for something completely different for all she knew. Olivia ignored Red as she grabbed breakfast and sat at the table.

What do you want? She glanced down at her hands, where her claws had dug into the plastic of the table. She relaxed and eyed Beth as she sat across from her. Beth kept her head down and claws curled up. Not hissing, not a threat. Olivia opted for silence, with only Beth’s tail swishing along on the concrete floor to break it.

“Hey,” said Beth after a few minutes.

Did I do something? “Hi.” That’s what she was saying, right?

“How’s it going?”

“Good, I guess.”

The conversation dropped off for a few silent moments. “So,” began Beth. “You’re, like, the original, right? Like, with the wings and stuff?”

Olivia nodded.

“So you can’t remember much either?”

Olivia shook her head.

“How far back can you remember, then?”

“Two months. Wait, it’s the end of June, two and a half.” Why do you care?

Beth looked down at her clawed hands. “But you know more about all this stuff than me. So, like, what exactly is different about us?” she asked.

“Um, well, you can fly. It’s fun!” Olivia sat up straighter in her chair, wings relaxed. I need to go flying again soon. Maybe I could bring the others along!

“These aren’t useless? Yes!” said Beth, cracking a smile.

“Yeah, if you do it right, you can go almost as fast as a car,” explained Olivia. “Landing is kind of annoying, though.” Stupid feet.

“So I can just flap my wings and go?”

Olivia shook her head. “No. I jumped off a building my first time. It takes practice.”

Beth laughed. “Wow. That’s one way to do it.”

“Yeah,” agreed Olivia. That was kind of dumb, looking back. Oh well. “It’s really fun. Do you want to learn?”

“Sure,” said Beth.

“We have to wait for night. Because, you know, people don’t like us.” They freak out, usually.

“Yeah, feral. Fuck,” said Beth, her smile slipping away. “And my ears keep giving me trouble. They’re going to drive me insane, I swear.”

“My ears are kind of messed up, too,” said Olivia. “Sometimes there’s this annoying ringing sound in them. People keep shooting guns and stuff next to my ears. It hurts. But it gets better. Once you figure out what it is you’re hearing. Oh, yeah, we’re kind of bulletproof. They still hurt, but they don’t really break skin.”

Beth looked down at her arm for a moment. “Seriously?” Olivia nodded. Why would I lie? “Wait, how did you figure out you’re, or we’re, bulletproof?”

“I got shot.”

Beth stared. “What? Why? What did you do?”

“They shot me. They were mean.”

“They, who is they?”

“Some mercenary guys,” replied Olivia.

After a dumbfounded moment, Beth said, “Every answer just leads to more questions.”

“I know, I’m weird.”

Rob and Amanda walked over together, both huddled over a tablet in Amanda’s hands.

“Think that’ll work?” asked Rob.

“It should. Let’s give it a shot after food,” replied Amanda. “How are you two?” she asked as she sat next to Olivia as Rob went off to the cupboards.

“Just chatting,” replied Beth. “Where is everyone else?”

“Hank is sulking somewhere, Miya’s talking with Red out back. Something about magic. Oh yeah, and I think Ben is with them,” replied Amanda. Oh, they moved.

“What did you say? Magic?” asked Beth with a disbelieving smile on her face.

“Didn’t know?” said Rob as he returned, protein bars in hand. “Miya thinks you and Olivia and the others can use magic.”

“No, no that was never mentioned,” said Beth, shooting a glance at Olivia.

“Sorry.” I was going to get to that.

“So what were you two chatting about?” asked Amanda.

“Just us,” replied Olivia.

“Like, what we can do,” added Beth.

“Oh, the flyin’ an’ strength an’ stuff like that,” said Rob.

“Strength you say,” said Beth, shooting another look at Olivia.

“Sorry, there’s a lot of stuff,” said Olivia.

“Seriously, so much,” muttered Beth.

“Right, yeah!” said Rob, jumping out of his chair. He jogged over to his work area.  “Here, bend this,” he said as he returned. He passed her an inch thick bar of steel. Rather than taking the bar, she cast him a doubting look. “Trust me,” he added.

She took it, grasping both ends of the bar. With a look of concentration, she pushed, bending the bar a few inches. “Wow,” she said, holding it in front of her. “I didn’t think I could do that.”

“Damn it,” said Rob as he took the bar back.

“Why did you ask her to bend it, then?” asked Olivia.

“Just testin’. I’m tryin’ to make somethin’ you lot can’t bend. Gotta have a goal, after all,” Rob called over his shoulder. He tossed the bar over to the work area, where it hit the ground with a sharp clang.

“OK, Beth, I need your opinion on something,” said Amanda. She twirled her tablet around, showing Olivia and Beth a picture of a jaguar lounging on the bank of a river. “Do you think this is cute?”

Of course it is, how could it be anything else. Beth considered the picture for a moment before saying, “Now that you say it, I guess so.” Olivia gave her a small smile. See guys, it’s not weird.

Rob and Amanda exchanged glances as he took a seat beside her. “I got an idea,” he said, commandeering the tablet. “For both of you. Here’s an enormous grizzly bear. Same question.”

“Oh my gosh!” said Olivia, clasping her hands in front of her. “It’s so fat and furry and cute!”

Beth glanced at her before saying, “Yeah, yeah, that’s kind of cute.”

“And, give me a sec,” said Rob. “This pack of snarling wolves?”

“Yes! Those are even better. But… why do they look so mad?” I want one. And a jaguar. I want both.

“They’re wolves,” said Beth. “That’s what they do.” Her gaze flickered between Rob and Amanda. “Right?” But, just look at them.

Rob nodded. “Come on, one of them has blood on its muzzle,” said Amanda.

“Yeah, but they don’t look that threatening.”

“You’re funny,” said Rob. Yeah, well, you’re short.

A series of hisses and snarls caught their attention. No, no, no. She looked over just in time to see Hank drive an elbow into the center of Red’s chest. What are you doing? Why? She grunted and took a swing at his head, aiming for his throat. Her claws glanced off his chin, failing to hook into anything.

Ben teleported over to them. “Hey, hey, break it up!” He ducked under Hank’s backhanded blow.

“Enough!” roared Olivia as she advanced. Beth hissed behind her.

Right as Hank whirled around to face her, she wrapped an arm around his midsection, lifted him off his feet, and threw him face first to the ground. He let out a snarl as he tried to get up, cut short by a stomp to his back. His claws curled in as he gasped for air.

“All of you,” Olivia sapt as she turned on Red and Beth. “Stop fighting. I’m tired of it.”

She let out a hiss of frustration and she stomped away, her tail smacking against the back of Hank’s head. The lair was silent beyond Hank’s labored breathing. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Homecoming – Hunter

The whole group hovered over Amanda’s shoulder as she navigated the contents of her two flash drives. Ben and Rob flicked each other in the ear, breaking up the otherwise silent moment.

“Here we go. Here’s your file, Red,” called out Amanda after a minute.

She brought a few documents up on the laptop screen. Olivia tilted her head at the picture of the familiar scowling, dark haired girl on the screen, then to Red, standing on the opposite side of the cluster of people. Wait, I’ve seen that picture before. Wasn’t… wasn’t she one of the girls that Amanda thought could be me? She tucked her wing in tighter, letting Miya beside her get a better look.

“I don’t know her. I… I don’t recognize her,” said Red, her usual identical scowl replaced with a curious frown. Her claw fiddled with a small hole in the sleeve of the shirt Olivia had loaned her. Buddy and the other girl watched the proceedings from opposite sides of the lair, gauging her reaction. Good. Just… stay over there.

“Yeah, not totally unexpected,” said Ben.

“Listen up,” said Amanda, reading off the document. “Here we go. Name of Samantha Weiss. Age fifteen. Runaway. Mom was single. They… they grabbed you off the streets, sometime in late March. They kept you under until they needed a…” Amanda’s mouth twisted. “They needed a subject, age fifteen, female. Like Olivia. After, you know, the stuff, it looks like you’re in very good health. Nothing went horribly wrong.”

“Something wrong?” asked the nameless girl from the table, halfway across the lair. “What do you mean something went wrong?”

Amanda blinked in surprise, and spun around in her chair to get a look at the girl who’d spoken. She said something! Olivia offered her a small smile, though the girl’s eyes remained fixed on the screen.

“Oh, hi. What?” replied Amanda. “Nothing went wrong.”

“No, but something could go wrong? Or could have already?”

“Yes. There were twenty initial subjects, ten male, ten female. Hang on, there was something about this somewhere.”

Amanda brought up another couple of documents.

“Here it is. Blah, blah, blah, ‘Two females expired during the process. Five more expired due to complications, detailed,’ in some other part, ‘three males expired during the same process, and five due to similar complications. Of the two remaining, one has developed abnormalities within its heart and requires further study. While the larger number of surviving females, as well as the source of the genetic material suggests they are preferable, with the small sample size any such conclusions would be premature.’”

Ben let out a low whistle and said, “Clinical motherfuckers.”

Amanda shook her head closed the new document. “I haven’t read your file, so I don’t know about you,” she said to the girl. “But so far as those Overlord guys could tell, Samantha here has a clean bill of health.”

“Samantha,” Red repeated to herself.

“Anythin’ comin’ back?” asked Ben.

“No.” By this point, everyone had turned to face Red. Rob leaned against the desk beside Amanda, and Miya watched as she bit her lip “No, nothing,” Red continued. “Is there anything else?”

“That’s all Overlord’s people had to say on you. I don’t think they cared, so long as you were healthy. But…” Amanda shooed Red and Ben out of her way, moving to a computer on another desk. “We stole a file the feds had on you. Or copied, whatever. There might be more details in there.”

“Stole?” asked Red, the corners of her lips quirking up in the beginnings of a smile.

Amanda let out a quick laugh. “Yeah, it’s complicated.” A moment later, she said, “Here’s what there is in the missing person case for you. Ran away from home. Mother is normal suburbanite. Maybe… yeah, the feds thought you were acting out. Looks like it was a messy divorce between your parents.”

“What now? Divorce?” asked Red.

“They were married, and now they’re not.”

“Oh, right,” replied Red, shaking her head. “I don’t remember.” I know, I know. Red let out a hiss. “I can’t remember shit. Fuck this. Fuck her.”

“Well, who are you, then?”

“Red.”

“Hold up, I meant that as a nickname, not a real name,” said Ben.

Red shrugged. “So?  I’m not her. She doesn’t have claws, she ran away from a family I don’t know. It’s not like I have a better name, and I’m not taking the name of some idiot girl I’ve never met.” She shook her head, a growl rising in her throat. “Fuck it, I’m going for a walk.”

Olivia felt her eyes widen. What is wrong with you? We just handed you your whole past and you’re just walking away? What?

“Whoa, hold up,” said Ben, teleporting between Red and the door as she walked away. Her shoulder collided with his, sending him staggering back. No. Olivia uncurled her claws and marched forward. Red whirled around, wings half spread and teeth bared.

It took Olivia to realize that she mirrored Red. Ben had teleported between the two of them, Rob rushing to join them. Buddy and the nameless girl hissed in the background.

“Calm down, calm down,” said Rob, trying to pull an unyielding Olivia away from Red.

Fine. Olivia curled her hands and backed away a step.

Ben talked up to Red. “Jus’ listen for a minute. You hearin’ me?” He held up a hand, his other behind his back, resting on something. Is… is that a knife? An iron knife? Red narrowed her eyes at Olivia and nodded. “OK. You’re gonna wanna stay outta sight. People ain’t gonna react well to ya, an’ soldiers might shoot at ya. Got that? Hell, I’ll come with ya. Sound good?”

Red jerked her head in a quick nod and stormed out the door without a look back. You get to know who you are. Why are you being… being an asshole? Ben grimaced and teleported after her.

“Jesus Christ,” muttered Rob, running a hand through his hair as the door shut behind Ben.

Silence fell over the lair. Olivia walked over to her beanbag and collapsed on it. Ungrateful little…

“So, do either of you want to figure this out?” Amanda asked Buddy and the nameless girl, breaking the silence.

“Yes,” said the girl. Buddy just glowered, keeping an eye on Olivia. You want some too? Once he finally broke eye contact, Olivia pulled out her tablet, with the sound of Amanda typing in the background. Stupid, stupid… She took a deep breath. Calm. No dragon. Calm.

Olivia kept her eyes on the book on the tablet, though she kept her ears open. “Beth. Your name is Bethany Alderson,” Amanda explained to the girl.

“Thank god. Is there anything else? I… I can’t remember anything,” asked the nameless girl, now Beth. She stood with the others, her tired eyes fixed on Amanda’s screen. Buddy kept his distance at the far end of the lair, near the food and long table.

“Not too much. A runaway, like Sam. Or Red, whatever. Again, healthy, no real issues. They thought something went wrong with your ears. Overlord’s people were about to start tests.”

“OK, Overlord. I keep hearing that name and I have no idea what it means. I’m tired of being confused. What is going on?” asked Beth.

“Yeah,” agreed Buddy, his voice deeper than Olivia would have expected. “I’m tired of this.”

Everyone’s heads whipped around as Buddy spoke. He stood upright and glowered at the stares. “So both of you can talk, I was wondering,” murmured Amanda.

“What, exactly, am I? Are we?”

“Olivia didn’t explain?” asked Miya.

“Yeah, I thought she’d have done that already,” said Amanda.

Olivia looked up from her book. “No, nothing.” It’s not like anyone ever listens.

“Well, ask away,” said Amanda. Olivia mostly tuned out the conversation, she’d heard it all before.

“So yeah, that’s that,” concluded Rob.

“Feral. Fuck,” muttered Beth with a grimace. Hey.

“You get used to it, I guess,” said Olivia.

“Real helpful,” said Beth, a small sneer forming on her face. Go away. Olivia set aside her tablet with a hiss.

Rob jumped between them. “Nope, nope, no fightin’. You hear me?”

Olivia locked eyes with Beth. “Sorry, I’m just frustrated. Sorry,” said Beth after a moment, curling her clawed hands.

“Sorry,” Olivia mumbled back. Just let me read my book.

“You two good?” asked Rob, taking a cautious step back.

“Yeah,” said Olivia and Beth at the same time. Just leave me alone.

“Would you want to find your family?” asked Miya.

Beth nodded.

“Alright, we’ll get that all sorted out. There’s not much here right now, but with a name I can find almost anything about you. You’re up, Buddy,” said Amanda. Beth skirted around him as they switched spots in the lair.

Olivia hit the next page button, forgetting to use the back of her claw. It left a deep scratch in the screen. No, no, no. She placed the tablet to her side and buried her face into the dark blue beanbag as the others talked. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

“Alright, Buddy, your real name is Hank Lentz. Another runaway kid. Grabbed in early June. And, whoa. That’s bad. They’re thinking you have heart problems.” Buddy, now Hank, frowned. Heart? Wait.

Amanda stared hard at the screen for a moment.

“I have no idea what they’re talking about,” she said. “They saw heart irregularities? I think that’s what they said. That other guy, the one that didn’t make it, they mention him as well.” Hearts, something about our hearts. What?

“Why am I alive, then?” asked Hank.

Amanda threw her hands up. “I don’t know, they don’t know. Hell, they were just seeing what the fuck they could do. They were surprised any of you made it. So I guess watch your heart health or whatever.”

Gland. “Gland,” Olivia repeated out loud.

“What was that?” asked Miya.

Olivia lifted her head up. “Um, at that feral research place. Dr. Ruskov said he found a gland thing close to my heart. Is that it?”

“I… have no idea,” said Amanda. “How did they find that?”

“Um, an X-ray I think. And they were talking about magic. That might be it,” replied Olivia.

Rob and Amanda turned to Miya, whose eyes widened at the sudden scrutiny. “Oh, yeah, I can take a look.Olivia sat up as she approached.

“Wait, magic? Seriously?” asked Beth, eyebrow raised.

“You’ve got claws and wings, and you’re questioning the existence of magic? Really?” replied Miya with an incredulous smile. Beth folded her arms and stayed quiet. “Alright, where is this gland thing?”

“Near my heart, on the right.”

Miya nodded as her eyes turned a solid dark red. She knelt down and placed a hand on Olivia’s bare shoulder.

“I’ve always wondered, what exactly do you see?” asked Rob.

“Just magic. People are easy enough. Organs here, bones here, and so on. The lungs take in air, so that’s what the magic tells me. Intestines take in stuff, so that’s what the magic tells me. Olivia is a bit more complex, actually. A lot more going on, some of it active.”

“Wait, we got magic an’ shit in us?” asked Rob.

“Are you made of matter?” Without waiting for a response, Miya said, “Then yes, you have magic in you. It’s dormant, don’t worry.”

“Huh,” replied Rob. Cool.

“I think I found it. Maybe. Magic is weird,” said Miya. Her eyes returned to normal as she broke contact with Olivia. “I have no clue what it does right now, but let’s see if Buddy has one.” I know, I’m weird. But there’s other weird people now, too.

Hank let out a bared his teeth as she approached. She froze. “I’m just going to put my hand on your arm. Nothing else.” He considered her for a moment, then relaxed.

“Yeah, nope, not there,” said Miya after a moment.

“Does that mean anything?” asked Beth.

“Fuck if I know,” replied Miya. “It’ll take me a while to figure it out. I spotted something there that I need to check out, first. I had no idea what it did.” That can’t be good.

“Hey, think the internet’s back?” asked Rob.

“That’s a good question,” said Amanda, wheeling herself over to another desk, with Rob following.

Miya turned to Hank. “You’re standing after a day, and I didn’t see anything terribly wrong, but if you’re feeling off, come to me.”

Hank just shrugged and turned away, heading for the side of the lair opposite of Beth and Olivia. Miya exchanged a glance with Olivia. He’s just being an ass. Whatever.

“Hey, it’s back! That was quick,” called out Amanda. On her largest monitor she put on a news channel.

“This live?” asked Rob.

Amanda tapped the bottom of the screen, where LIVE appeared in bright red letter. “Yep.” Oh, that’s easy enough.

“This is the internet,” said Rob, a confused look on his face.

“So?”

“Why do they have a cable style news thing goin’ on?”

Amanda laughed. “It’s on cable and online. Why would they want to go out of business? News stations aren’t staffed by retarded monkeys.”

Rob threw up his hands in mock surrender with a grin. “Sorry, I’ll try to be less of an idiot.”

Amanda patted him on the leg. “You do that.”

On screen, the two anchors both stared at the camera, dark rings under their eyes. The man had four long scratches in his suit across his chest. The woman stammered something about Overlord, one eye swollen shut.

“Holy shit.”

“Yeah, they’re in bad shape,” said Miya.

“No, well yeah, but not that, read the ribbon thing at the bottom,” said Amanda.

Olivia read, “Erbil leveled by Lionhead, Peshmerga forces in full retreat. The Mother spotted near the French border after botched missile tests. Nuclear detonation by Overlord in Venezuela confirmed. No survivors in Caracas. Renewed Siberian incursions into China suspected.”

“Oh shit,” said Rob softly.

“That’s a lot,” said Miya, voice equally quiet.

“In… in other news.” The woman’s hands started trembling. “I… I can’t. I can’t do this. I won’t-” The feed cut off, replaced by a please wait sign.

Are… are they OK? What’s going on? Olivia looked around to the others, who looked as confused as she felt. A few seconds later, two different anchors appeared on screen, wide plastic smiles plastering their faces. They continued with their broadcast.

“What the hell?” muttered Beth.

“You see that, too?” asked Olivia.

“What’s wrong with their faces?” Oh thank god you do tpo.

“What do you mean?” asked Miya.

“You don’t see those smiles?” asked Beth.

The others considered the anchors for a moment. “Kind of?” asked Amanda.

“They’ve always done that, right?” said Rob. What?

“No, really,” said Beth. “The hell is that?”

“Yeah. That’s super weird,” added Olivia. How do you guys not see that? I mean, I know you guys don’t see very well, but come on. We’ve had this discussion before, too.

“Hold up, I’m seein’ a pattern. What about you, Buddy?” asked Rob.

“Creepy,” replied Hank, trying to look bored..

“I’m really not seeing the problem,” said Amanda with a shake of her head.

“Are you guys insane?” asked Beth.

“Are you?” asked Miya.

“Look,” said Olivia. “Really look.”

Amanda said, “It’s the news. Why would they be hiding something?” Rob and Miya nodded in agreement. Olivia hung her head. Fine. It’s not worth the argument. Whatever. The anchors continued, expanding on the stories that had run on the ribbon below.

Just then, the door opened, and in walked Red and Ben. Red kept her eyes on the ground, heading for the food cabinets near Beth.

“Hola,” said Ben with a wave. “Anythin’ fun happenin’?”

“We were talking about the news people,” said Miya.

Beth let out a low hiss as Red approached her and the food. Red snapped. She grabbed Beth by the throat and lifted her off of her chair. Beth drove her foot into Red’s stomach. Red doubled over, loosening her grip on Beth enough for her to tear herself free, leaving small red marks along her throat.

Enough. Olivia climbed to her feet as Red recovered and tackled Beth to the ground, sending them both to the ground in a tangle of wings and limbs. Olivia hauled Red off of Beth and threw her halfway across the lair. She crashed through the curtains and into the sleeping area.

“Are we interrupting something?” asked a familiar voice. Olivia whirled around to find Smith standing in the middle of the lair with two of her agents. Olivia let out a snarl. Stop teleporting. Get out.

“Jesus! What do you want?” demanded Miya. She and the others had spread out, torn between self-preservation and breaking up the fight. Rob and Ben both had knives at hand, flanking Red.

“We need to speak to Cyrus.”

“He’s sleeping. He don’t wanna talk to you, he don’t wanna talk to you,” said Rob, sliding his long knife back into a sheathe on his back.

“No, no, it’s fine,” said Cyrus, untangling himself from some curtains. “Having someone thrown on you tends to wake you up.”

He managed to climb to his feet, a heavily breathing Red following suit behind him. Don’t do anything stupid again, Sam. She noticed Olivia’s gaze and seemed to deflate a bit, her wings tucking further in behind her back. Good.

Cyrus dusted himself off and walked up to Smith. “Is there any reason you’re harassing me and my hosts?”

“We deal with problems. And you could very well be a problem. A big one.”

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Community Service – Bunker 7-16

Olivia tore her gaze away from Slim Jim and stared at Cyrus, hovering in the air beside her. “You died,” she whispered, drowned out by the sound of gunfire from the upper level of the abandoned factory.

“Not now,” he replied, keeping his eyes fixed on Slim Jim. “You, talk.”

“No, no, no, you died. You were dead. How are you alive now?” insisted Olivia, raising her voice. I know what I saw. I saw the blood.

“The feral is right. One of the foot soldiers put three bullets in the back of your head,” added Slim Jim, the faintest hints of a smile playing on the corners of his mouth. He remained pinned by strong currents of air. Behind him floated and spun the remains of the robots Olivia and Cyrus had torn apart.

“Thirty years, not bad,” murmured Cyrus. “Can’t be helped now.”

Wind picked up in the factory, followed by the shriek of metal tearing. Olivia whirled around to witness some invisible force tear apart the robots engaged with Miya and the grey suited agents on the upper catwalks of the factory. The air howled and whistled as it blew past ruined robots and ancient abandoned equipment. Then, without warning, everything went still. Olivia, Miya, and the agents stared at the destruction around them

“The reinforcements outside have also been dealt with,” said Cyrus, who hadn’t so much as looked at the scene behind him.

“Ahh,” replied Slim Jim with a slow, knowing nod.

Olivia turned on him. What? How does this make sense? How does any of this make sense? Cyrus was dead. I saw his head. And why can he suddenly just destroy all the robots on a whim? Behind her, the grey suits and Miya floated down from the catwalks, weapons at the ready. The bulky agent held a hand to his side with his free hand, a few droplets of blood trailing behind him.

“You did that?” one of the grey suits asked Cyrus. “All of that?”

“Yes.”

The agents eyed the blood and holes in Cyrus’ MHU uniform. “You’re not injured?”

“No.”

Smith leveled her pistol at Cyrus. Behind her, the other three grey suits fanned out. “You’re the Haboob,” she said, her voice dead calm. Olivia stopped herself from letting out a nervous laugh at the sheer absurdity of that statement.

Cyrus nodded. “Guilty.”

“The Haboob is an old Arab myth, right? He’s not real,” said Miya. Wait, what? Oh, right, I think Ben or Chris mentioned him before. He’s… yeah, they said he was a myth.

Cyrus shot her a glance. Olivia flicked her tail on the ground, drifting between him and Miya. “I’m right here,” he said.

Olivia jumped as one of the agents fired into several bullets into Cyrus’ chest. Slim Jim took the opportunity to whip a few tentacles at Olivia’s face. She snarled and grabbed at one, yanking herself towards him. The moment she got close, he drove both feet into a kick to her chest and retracted his tentacles. In the gravity-less room, he shoot back towards a broken window and the outside, far out of her reach. No! A huge gust of air bashed Slim Jim’s head into the concrete floor a few feet from the window. Olivia froze for a moment. Is he… is he dead?

Cyrus turned on the agent who had fired as Slim Jim’s tentacles began repairing himself. “Why did you do that? What possible purpose did that serve?” he asked with a sigh, his flesh knitting back together under his battered jacket.

“You’re a monster,” replied the dark skinned agent, his pistol still aimed at Cyrus’ chest.

“A monster who is on your side.” Olivia flapped her wings and floated back to Miya.

“Stand down,” barked Smith at the agent. After a moment, he glared at Cyrus and lowered his gun. Smith looked Cyrus in the eye for a moment, then raised her watch to her mouth. “Blackjack, ready to move Slim Jim to containment?” She paused for a moment as a tiny buzzing sound returned. “Good. On my mark.”

“Wait,” said Cyrus, raising a hand. “I’d like a moment.”

“You already have a lot to answer for, Cyrus or Haboob or whatever your name really is. I’m sure the Turks would like you back for leveling Istanbul.”

“I’m sure they would. I’m sure they also appreciate not living in a scorched wasteland even more, however. I’ve defended my home from Mongol hordes and Roman legions, kept disgruntled Ottoman mages from accidentally disintegrating half the planet, and prevented an insane imam from burning Jerusalem to the ground. What makes you think I’m on the side of chaos?”

“The part where I don’t believe a word out of your mouth,” said the dark skinned agent. Stop. Guys, stop. Slim Jim is right there.

The air lifted a whole and intact Slim Jim back into a standing position, inches above the ground. “So you don’t believe he’s here, right now, unable to escape? Really?” asked Cyrus.

“Stand down,” repeated Smith. “You shot him and he hasn’t killed you. Yet. Let’s see what he can do. Blackjack, standby.”

Cyrus nodded. Slim Jim said, “If you think torture is going to work, you’re very, very stupid.”

“Piece of shit, what the hell do you know about torture?” muttered Miya. Olivia looked down. Miya’s knuckles were white against the grip of her gun, though she kept it pointed at the ground.

“I know,” said Cyrus. “You don’t feel pain. You can’t. Your own power splits your skin open every time you use it. But you’re beginning to doubt. Pain is how your body tells you if something is wrong. What happens when old age catches up to you and your body begins to fail? When your heart ruptures, will you die, or will your power keep you lingering, ever lingering? You won’t feel it, but you will know something is wrong. You’re a professional above all else. What happens when you can’t perform your job to the standards you’ve set yourself?”

Slim Jim stared, his face impassive. “You haven’t offered anything yet.”

“I offer you freedom. You can either rot in whatever pit they throw you into,” said Cyrus, jerking his head towards Smith. “Or tell us where Overlord is and walk free.”

“If I tell you, Overlord will kill you, then kill me. If I don’t tell you, he kills you and releases me. You’re not very good at this.”

“That’s what every would be conqueror has said,” replied Cyrus, folding his arms across his chest. “Yet here I am and they are gone. Look, I know money isn’t a factor for you anymore. You’ve never shown devotion to any particular cause before. I’d be willing to bet Overlord has something else, some other carrot to dangle in front of you. He’ll never give you that carrot, you have to know that.”

Cyrus absentmindedly stroking his beard, considering Slim Jim. “Family, perhaps? No. If I remember correctly one of the members of the Undead we rounded up was your son. By all accounts you’re a terrible father.” Olivia’s eyes widened. What? Those guys? Miya caught Olivia’s questioning glance and shrugged. Slim Jim remained impassive.

“And he was a terrible son. And apparently one who didn’t know how to keep his mouth shut.”

That… that’s terrible. You’re a dad. You’re not supposed to say stuff like that.

“You wouldn’t retire, not gracefully.” A small smile formed on Cyrus’ face. “You think Overlord will get you a fight, a challenge that could get you killed. A fight with me, or someone like me. If you’re patient I think I can get you exactly what you want. And if I’m wrong I know just to get rid of you.”

Slim Jim’s head tilted, brow furrowing. The air shot him and Cyrus through the hole in the roof Cyrus made during his entrance. Wait, no. Stop doing that.

“Son of a bitch!” Smith shouted after them. The dark skinned agent fired a few futile shots into the sky after them.

Miya and Olivia stayed quiet as Smith composed herself. What do we do now? I have no idea. I’m… I’m just tired now. That was all just for nothing, I guess. She held a hand to her ribs, where an armored robot had elbowed her. Stupid thing.

Miya patted her on the back between two spikes, causing her to flinch. “You OK there?” she asked.

“Yeah, that kind of stung,” replied Olivia.

Miya leaned back, pulled her hand aside, and let out a low whistle. “Your back is black and blue. Jesus.”

“What?” Olivia pushed through the soreness to twist around, only getting a facefull of her own wing. “I got shot a couple times in the back, I think.”

Miya snorted. “A couple times? Try a dozen.” Well, yeah. Bullets hurt. A lot.

“Boss?” asked one of the grey suits. “Orders?”

“Nothing we can do now. Let’s get back to where there’s gravity,” said Smith, her voice bitter. “Blackja-” She stopped herself as Cyrus flew back into the factory.  “Where is Slim Jim?” she demanded before he even came to a stop.

“Not here.”

“What do you mean ‘not here’?”

“I mean he is somewhere else.”

“OK, smartass. You had no right or authority to do that.”

“And yet I did. By the way, he told me the entrance to Overlord’s bunker, seven sixteen, is hidden somewhere within the MHU vault. In case you wanted to know.”

Smith blinked. “The vault? What? How? That’s the most secure place in the city.” Wait, what’s the vault?

“And I guarantee it wasn’t on your list of possible places. So Overlord did his job well, hiding in plain sight. It’s not within the cell itself, he doesn’t want desperate lunatics somehow tripping over it. The entrance is near the lower control room.”

“One of the first places overrun was MHU headquarters,” pointed out one of the grey suits.

Olivia leaned over and whispered to Miya, “What’s the vault?”

“That’s the MHU’s supermax cell thing. Supposed to be inescapable.” Olivia nodded.

“How can we trust you?” asked Smith.

Cyrus sighed. “That’s a risk you’ll have to take. Unless you have a better idea of where Overlord could be.”

“Blackjack, get us back to the mint,” said Smith.

Pressure built in Olivia’s ears. In a split second, their surroundings changed from a run down and abandoned factory to a familiar hallway. The pressure released. Whoa. She looked around. Smells like the mint. That was so cool. Is it like that for Ben when he teleports and stuff?

“We need to get to the lieutenant, tell him what needs to happen,” said Smith. Cyrus nodded. To the three grey suits, Olivia, and Miya, she said, “Catch your breath, and get ready. We’ll let you know when everything is in motion.” She and Cyrus hurried off, leaving them behind.

“Want to find the others?” Miya asked Olivia. She nodded.

Miya fiddled with her comm. “Hey guys. We’re back. Are you all in one piece?”

“I’m good. Keepin’ watch, it’s quiet again,” replied Skulker, his words slower than normal.

“I’m here,” added Delta, sounding out of breath. “Gears is with some MHU guys right now.”

“Cyrus is back. Him and some government spook want us to attack the MHU headquarters ,” said Miya. The three grey suits nearby shot her a look as they escorted their wounded comrade away.

“Shit. Wanna meet up?” asked Skulker.

“I’m near the motor pool, next to Gears’ truck. If you all want to meet up here,” said Delta.

Olivia nodded to Miya. They’re OK. They’re still OK. “Sounds good,” replied Miya.

“Cool, see ya in a few,” said Skulker.

Olivia and Miya passed by several small groups of soldiers and police officers on the way down. Most slumped against the walls of the hallway, their guns on the floor. The smell of sweat made Olivia’s eyes water.

“They just keep screaming,” whispered an officer, to no one in particular.

They made it out to where Delta and Skulker waited. Delta sat in an opened door, hunched over to the point she was nearly curled up. Skulker leaned on the side of the bed. Where is Rob?

“I shot a bunch of robots. Nearly got hit by a missile. Ya know, the normal durin’ a robot invasion,” Skulker was saying to Delta. She just grunted.

“Delta, are you OK?” asked Olivia.

“Just trying not to throw up,” she replied, gaze fixed on the ground.

“Oh, do you need me to…” began Olivia. Do what? Get food? No, that’d make it worse. Maybe…

“It’ll pass,” replied Delta. “I just need a moment.”

“Are you-”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Delta cut Olivia off. She straightened up. “See?”

“OK,” said Olivia, raising a placating hand.

“So what’ve you two been up to?” asked Skulker.

Miya and Olivia exchanged glances. We got shot at a bunch. “Well, we got dragged along in a hunt for Slim Jim by government spooks, found out Cyrus is the Haboob, captured Slim Jim, and then we found out Overlord is hiding out somewhere in the MHU vault,” explained Miya.

Silence greeted her words. Now that she says it out loud, it does sound like kind of a lot. Delta and Skulker had gone stock still, their expressions unreadable under their masks.

“Uhh,” said Skulker.

“So… What?” added Delta.

Miya gave them a weary smile and pulled some hair out of her face. “What? Didn’t that make total sense?”

“Sorta?” said Skulker.

“I understood the individual words, but all together they made no sense,” said Delta. “So, Overlord is here? And what’s more, he’s here in the MHU vault for some reason. And Cyrus is an old Arabic legend? And Slim Jim just told you all this?”

“Yes. To all of that.” Olivia nodded alongside Miya.

“Oh,” managed Delta.

“Gonna explain that?” asked Skulker.

“There’s not much to explain,” said Miya. “We got caught up when the spooks ambushed Slim Jim. He got away, and we followed after him. Then Cyrus showed up and beat the hell out of Slim Jim. Then Slim Jim told us Overlord was in the vault.”

“You’re a shit story teller,” said Skulker. “That was way too borin’.” Miya just stuck her tongue out at him.

“Wait, so Overlord was, or is, whatever, a prisoner in the vault?” asked Delta.

“No, that’s just where his bunker is hidden.”

“An’ how the hell you know Cyrus is some immortal destruction god guy?”

“Cyrus got shot a bunch of times in the head. I saw the… the pieces,” added Olivia. “Then, when I looked again, he was better.” The grey suits were the ones who called him the Haboob.

“So yeah, Cyrus and the agent lady in charge went to the lieutenant guy,” said Miya. “They want to attack the MHU building.”

“We’d need to get across no man’s land. That’ll get ugly real fast,” said Skulker.

“No man’s land?” asked Delta.

“Yeah, I was up on the rooftops most of the time. Towards the MHU is a lot of bots and wreckage. Fightin’s been pretty heavy.”

Where is Rob? Or Gears, whatever. He should be here for this. Olivia whispered, “I’m going to find your brother,” to Skulker and followed Gears’ scent down the road. And… is that Jeremiah? Yeah. Olivia passed by a wrecked humvee and stopped beside an MHU van with a wheel missing.

“-already saved my hide,” said Jeremiah. “I’m one person. If it comes to light that the Company helped Overlord they will have good reason to stamp us out,” said Jeremiah. “We need you to destroy all records in there that you come across. Do this and the Company will owe you a favor or three.”

“Really concerned ‘bout Overlord? You guys seem pretty entrenched,” replied Gears.

“You think Overlord would tolerate a black market? A market he can’t control? No. I hate to say it but we were tricked. If we’d known we’d never have helped.”

“Sure. If I get in I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you.”

Two sets of footsteps separated. Gear’s heavier armored footsteps approached Olivia’s hiding place. Rob, what are you doing? He rounded the corner to find Olivia waiting for him.

“Oh, hey!” he said with a wave. “Where’s everyone else at?”

“Your truck. Um, what was that?”

“That? Oh, you that. He offered me a good deal. I just gotta shotgun some of Overlord’s computers.”

“He said he’s-”

“Shh,” said Gears, cutting her off. “Company really values their secrecy. Can I trust you to not go talkin’ ‘bout this elsewhere?”

You weren’t going to tell us about this? The doubt must have shown on her face. He added, “You trust me?”

She sighed. “Fine.”

“Cool. Thanks. An’ don’t worry, I know a bad deal when I see one. Now come on. Everyone still back at the BAT?” She nodded. “Then lead the way.”

They returned to the others, still in the midst of conversation.

“What do you think the commander guy’ll have us do?” asked Skulker.

“We’re probably disposable,” said Miya. What? He hasn’t been mean or anything.

“Keep us in reserve?” said Delta. “Me and Gears have been helping keep all the vehicles running. Skulker is a sniper and Miya is a healer. Throwing us into a meat grinder wouldn’t be the best decision in the world.”

“So, we’re not going to split up again, right?” asked Olivia.

“Yeah, we’re stickin’ together. No worries,” said Skulker.

The wind picked up. Shouting came from all around. An idling engine roared to life.

Delta slid down from the truck seat and closed the door behind her. “Cyrus convinced the army guys. They’re moving out,” she said.

Gears shrugged. “Well, let’s see where this goes.”

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Community Service – Patriot

“Uh oh,” Olivia murmured to herself.

The massive armored robots on the rooftops before her opened fire. She pulled in her wings and dropped like a rock, though a shot still grazed her tail. At the last moment, she pulled up, landing on her feet on a different rooftop. She ducked behind the edge of the roof as a couple more heavy bullets whizzed overhead. One of the grey suits teleported near her after a moment. How do they keep finding me like that?

“You still following Slim Jim?” asked the grey suit, a different one than before. Other than the woman Smith, the bulky man who’d accompanied her when they’d first captured Slim Jim, and the man Slim Jim had killed, Olivia hadn’t seen another of the grey suits until now. The one next to her now had darker skin and a shaved head.

Olivia stared. “Yeah.” Why do you think I’m out here getting shot at?

“Just making sure. You’re bleeding.” He pointed to her tail.

She curled her tail to get a better look. A couple of the scales had been shot off but the bleeding had mostly stopped, plugged by a fast forming scab. “I’m fine.”

“We need to go, keep the pressure up.”

“OK. Um, how?”

“Go on, straight for Slim Jim. We’ll be right behind you.”

Oh, OK. Just have me charge into the really big guns. Great. Wonderful. Olivia jumped over the edge of the roof and spread her wings, flying parallel to the robots’ roof. She pumped her wings, gaining altitude. A couple bullets shot by beneath her. Bad. She tucked in a wing, spiraled, and dropped, gaining speed.

Another bullet hit her in the shoulder. She hissed and carried on, putting the robots’ roof between her and them. Once she reached the corner of their building, she turned and followed Slim Jim’s scent. The heavy metal footsteps of the robots followed.

Slim Jim had made good time on foot. A block passed before Olivia closed the gap. Then, she heard a booming sound from up above. Uh oh. She pulled up and dropped onto yet another rooftop, and not a moment too soon. A missile streaked down from the sky and hit the building in front of her. The shockwave knocked her off her feet, and her ears exploded in pain.

She lay stunned for a moment, with only the deafening ringing in her ears and the smell of smoke and dust in her nostrils. Her lungs sucked in breath again, and she rolled over, digging her claws into the roof. Up, up. Someone grabbed her upper arm, helping to haul her to her feet. Miya stood with two of the grey suits, the new one and Smith.

“They don’t want us in there,” said the male agent, his voice fuzzy and muffled. Another missile struck, blowing up closer than Olivia was comfortable. She hissed and covered her ears. “They really don’t want us in there.”

Smith shouted something by a roof access door. Olivia stomped over and rammed it down, letting the others in. Make it stop.

Down a flight of stairs, Smith brought everyone to a stop and nodded to the other grey suit. “Do it, now.”

The agent sat down on a step, closed his eyes, and went completely still. What? That’s not helpful.

“Alright, we should be invisible to the robots and whatever is shooting those missiles for a while,” said Smith.

“This takes a great deal of concentration. Hurry,” said the agent.

“Where the fuck did that come from?” demanded Miya, pointing up at ceiling and the sky beyond.

“Congress passed a law that allows the deployment of armed drones over American airspace a few months ago. Someone in the Air Force probably had the bright idea to use them. Damn it, we told them that was a terrible idea.”

“And he’s…” started Miya, making a vague gesture to the sitting grey suit.

“He’s making us invisible to any sort of electronic surveillance. We’re the anti-Overlord task force, we were chosen for a reason.”

Miya didn’t respond right away, instead producing a bandage from her back pocket and reaching up to wrap it around Olivia’s upper arm. Oh, bleeding. Again. Olivia bent down to make it easier on her.

“Thank you,” Olivia murmured to her.

Miya nodded and knotted the bandage. “If there are missile drones, it’s going to get really ugly back at the mint, real fast. We need to get back.”

“That doesn’t matter. What matters is finding Slim Jim.”

Miya and Olivia stared at Smith. How can you say that? There are people back there. Our friends are back there. The sitting grey suit kept sitting, his neutral expression unchanged. “What makes you so sure about that?” demanded Miya.

“A decade spent tracking him and Overlord,” said Smith, her expression grim. “Slim Jim knows where Overlord is, in this city, trust me. We can find Overlord and end this, no matter what happens back at the mint.”

Miya threw up her hands. “Screaming robots and power nullifiers and now fucking drones raining down missiles. Remind me, why would Overlord even in be in Westward? He could be slinging back drinks in Tahiti while these robots and fucking hellfire drones do all the dirty work.”

“You’ve spent time seeing his operation first hand. You know that’s not how he operates. What does he always want?”

Miya frowned for a moment. “Control,” she said, eyes on the ground.

“Yes. He’ll want personal, hands on control for something this big.”

“But… why Colorado?” asked Olivia.

“It’s a central location. Why do you think most US airlines use this city as their hub?” They do? “There are also a disproportionate number of robots here. He wants absolute control this city, top down.”

“Wait, disproportionate number of robots? Is that why there’s a fucking infinite number of the damn things?” asked Miya.

“Yes. He’s had close to twenty years to prepare for this. And most other cities aren’t seeing an invasion like this. He’s not toppling the government, he wants it intact and running, just with him in control of it. Classic tactic. The Romans did it, the conquistadors did it. This is less of an invasion and more of a very aggressive coup.” What?

Miya snorted and rolled her eyes. “Tell that to the CIA.”

“Yes, that line does get blurry. But you understand what I’m saying.”

“I understand I’m not leaving my friends behind,” said Olivia.

“And I am sorry, but this takes precedence.”

No. Olivia stood fully upright and looked down at Smith. “I can find Slim Jim from here. Can you?” she asked.

“We have our ways.”

“That you would be using if you had any other option,” said Miya. “But we’ve lost one friend already today, we’re not-”

“I’ve lost three people under my command in the last week, one of them from your stupidity,” shouted Smith, jabbing a finger at Miya. Olivia uncurled her claws. “Don’t preach to me about loss.”

“Faster, people,” said the sitting agent through gritted teeth. Olivia smelled sweat on him.

Smith broke eye contact for a moment, then said, “He’s right. We need to make a decision, now.”

Miya’s hands clenched into fists. “I don’t trust you. I remember you from somewhere. I know that.”

“That’s nice. Now will you help us or not?”

Olivia tilted her head at the woman. Something is off. Is she lying? Before she could ask anything, the comm in her ear crackled to life. She winced. “Pokey, ‘liv, Cyrus comin’ yer way,” said Skulker. Cyrus’ boots landed on the roof above them that instant. She narrowed her eyes as she looked up the stairs where he was heading. Where have you been? The last I remember from you is me getting possessed and you just flying off.

He appeared in view a moment later at the top of the stairs. “There you are,” he said, jogging down to join them.

“Cyrus,” said Smith with a nod.

He came to a stop beside the sitting grey suit. “I understand you are on the trail of Slim Jim,” he replied, addressing the group at large.

“That we are,” replied Smith.

“Good. He knows where to find Overlord.”

“Yes, we are aware.”

“Oh, the government hasn’t been idle after all?”

“Not all of it,” said Smith, a note of pride entering her voice. Olivia saw the other agent’s back straighten a little bit behind Cyrus.

Wait, Ben said Cyrus was coming. Does that mean… “Um, Cyrus? You were at the mint, right?” He nodded. “Was everyone…” Don’t say dead.

“They’re holding out. The lieutenant there filled me in. I took out the two drones that were giving them trouble on the way here, and the one over here,” he said casually. Olivia let out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. Wait, it’s that easy to destroy military drones? Really?

“Thank god,” murmured the sitting grey suit. He opened his eyes and stood, dusting off his suit jacket.

Miya’s brow furrowed as she stared at Cyrus. “The records don’t mention you being able to fly at those altitudes,” said Smith.

“It’s always good to keep something in reserve.”

“Not when you’re working for the Secret Service. They should have known.” With a frown she added, “They would have known.”

“It must have slipped their minds. Now, do you want to stand here debating or move?”

Smith paused for a second before nodding. “Point. Are you two in?” she asked Olivia and Miya.

“Are the others safe?” Olivia asked Cyrus.

“As safe as they can be, last I checked.”

Miya held a finger to her comm. “Delta? Gears? Are you guys good back at the mint?”

Gears’ voice crackled over Olivia’s comm. “We’re holding out. Need somethin’?”

“No, we’re good. Just checking in.”

Stop Overlord, stop the robots. “OK. Um, I can find Slim Jim,” Olivia said to Cyrus and Smith. Next to her, Miya nodded.

***

Several blocks later, they came to a stop near an abandoned factory. “There,” said Olivia, pointing a clawed finger at the low brick building. Cyrus nodded, landing next to her. A moment later, the two grey suits plus Miya teleported in. They took in the building, while the dark skinned agent masked them from any prying robot eyes.

“So what’s the plan?” asked Miya after a moment.

“Trap?” asked Cyrus.

“Trap,” agreed Smith. “No reason to stop in that building otherwise.”

“But we have no other choice but to go in,” added Cyrus with a sigh. “And they’re too smart to get drawn out of there.”

“Wait, with him here we could just sit here picking them off,” said Miya, jerking her thumb back at the grey suit, who’d sat back down and closed his eyes again.

“They’re not dumb. They’d figure out where we are really quick and carpet bomb the area. And Slim Jim isn’t a robot.”

“Power nullifiers?” asked Cyrus.

“I guarantee it.”

“Wait, why would he cut off his own power?” asked Miya.

“He’s not exactly helpless without powers. And those robots definitely won’t be.”

“I’m not. Olivia’s not.” Really? I thought I had a power.

“But the three of us will be,” pointed out Smith. “And, since this is a trap, there will be overwhelming force in there. Do the two of you want to take on everything in there?”

“Olivia, you can take a hit,” said Cyrus. Wait, what? “You go in first, draw their attention and take out every nullifier you can. You agents can teleport in after her. I can go up, make sure the airspace up is clear, then come in through the other side of the building. Two pronged assault.”

Bullets hurt. What do you people not understand about that? “Um, wait,” said Olivia. She fiddled with the bandage on her arm. “I, um, I…” How do I put this? “I don’t want to die?” Is that right? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s reasonable.

“Was that a question or a statement?” asked Cyrus.

“Both.” Does it matter?

“The moment you get clear of a nullifier in there we’ll teleport in after you,” added Smith. “Oh, and it won’t be just us. I have two more agents ready to join us.” Oh, five other people? Olivia’s confusion must have shown, because Smith spoke into the watch on her wrist. “Blackjack, can you get Jones and Taylor here?”

Two people teleported in behind Olivia. She spun around. One was the big guy that had been with Smith when she’d confronted Slim Jim. The other was a short blond woman, in the same style charcoal grey suit as the other agents. Both nodded to Olivia and the others.

“Wait, how do you keep teleporting to me?” asked Olivia.

“We put a small camera on you. Blackjack teleports us to where he can see through it. Jones is a short ranged metallokinetic.” The man nodded. “And Taylor is a multiplier,” said Smith. “With no nullifiers around, we have a fighting chance.”

Cyrus stepped up. “This is a long shot, but it’s the only shot we have. Anything to add?” he asked Smith.

“Slim Jim is utterly implacable. No one’s ever really stopped him before. He just heals and hammers away until you give in. If you can, take him out quick.” Oh, wonderful.

Cyrus grimaced. “Let’s do this.” He took off, fading from view into the early morning sky quicker than Olivia thought possible.

OK, let’s do this. Olivia lept off the roof and headed straight for the factory. In one the old, dirty windows she spotted robots. The power nullifying robot, flanked by two normal ones, had no visible head or neck, just a slight protrusion on top of its teardrop shaped torso. Two antenna stuck out from its back. You. Olivia tucked in her wings and held an arm in front of her eyes. She crashed through the window and into the power nullifier, sending them both sprawling.

That was dumb. She began climbing to her feet, when a metal foot kicked her in the teeth. Several bullets hit her in the back as a pair of normal robots started screaming. Stop it, stop it, stop it. She spat blood and whipped her tail around, aiming at the robot shooting at her. It jumped, only taking a glancing blow.

The second robot, the one that had kicked her, didn’t go for a second kick. It backpedaled and aimed its rifle. She gathered all the strength she could in her legs and lunged with a hiss. Her hand carved through the robot before it could fire a shot. More bullets hit her back, one glancing off a spike. She whirled around.

The second robot backed away, dragging a damaged leg. It raised its rifle. Behind it, the nullifier climbed to its feet, trying to escape. Olivia flinched as a bullet hit her cheekbone. No. She lowered her shoulder and charged.

In a woman’s voice, the robot sobbed, “No, no, no, please no.” Shut up. Olivia slammed into the robot. Its rifle spun free as the robot ragdolled.

The nullifier scrambled for the rifle as it flew by to its right. Olivia snarled, hooked her claws into its back, and brought it down. Go away, she thought, punctuating each syllable with a slash of her claws to its chest. The robot went still. She stood up straight and rolled her shoulders. Stupid bullets.

Slim Jim’s scent was still fresh in the building. She followed it, heading down the hallway as five friendlier scents materialized behind her. This isn’t hard. Two bullets melted through the wall, hitting her injured shoulder. She hissed and recoiled at their heat.

“Down,” yelled one of the agents. “One moment.”

A robot with a familiar sniper rifle came into view, dragged by an unseen force. The other agents and Miya opened fire, tearing it apart.

“Only one nullifier?” asked Miya.

Two of the grey suits exchanged glances. “Look like,” they replied.

He’s close. Olivia climbed to her feet and led the way towards the center of the factory. They found themselves on a catwalk overlooking the factory floor. A massive column of air burst in through the ceiling on the other side, carrying Cyrus with it. Robots went flying, bashing against the outer walls of the factory. Cyrus himself hovered a few feet above the ground.

In the center of the factory floor stood Slim Jim. Come on. Put on a shirt. Smith opened fire. Three bullet hit him, though his tentacles patched him up in an instant. The air around him howled, and he was raised up. Four thick tentacles of his wrapped around nearby machinery and flung them hard at Cyrus, who dropped to the floor to avoid getting smeared against a wall.

“He’s stalling,” muttered a grey suit.

A buzzing sound filled the air. Then Olivia found herself floating off the ground. Robots rushed into the room, including two armored and two nullifiers. They took the lack of gravity in stride, half floating towards Olivia’s group, the others towards Cyrus. She flailed, trying to grab onto something. Her tail whacked against the guardrail of the catwalk, sending her spinning.

“I recommend surrendering,” said Slim Jim, his emotionless voice still audible over the buzzing.

Behind Olivia, an agent threw a grenade towards the group of robots. One of the armored ones grabbed it and curled its body around it, taking the brunt of the blast. The other agents opened fire, the gunfire sending them back towards the hallway behind them.

The armored robot that had taken the grenade wasn’t active, but the others sailed on directly towards them. Olivia swiped as they clambered onto her. One let out a piercing shriek. Olivia curled up, unable to think about anything besides the noise. She didn’t even hear the gunfire all around her, didn’t feel the metallic hands on her. Everything was drowned out by the shriek.

Bullet hit her. Not the bullets of a robot’s rifle, but smaller pistol bullets. The shriek cut off. Olivia shrugged off the other robots and looked around. Miya clung to the remains of the armored robot, whether by accident or design the hulk was between her and most of the robots firing at the agents. Olivia stared at her. You shot me. Miya shouted something and pointed towards Slim Jim. Right. The momentum of the robots had brought Olivia up against the wall. She slashed apart another robot that had come back in range and pushed towards Slim Jim. Just like flying.

Slim Jim twisted, letting Olivia barrel past him and into Cyrus. She backhanded a robot as she tumbled, crushing its chest. Cyrus wrestled with another. He shouted something, Olivia still couldn’t hear.

The armored robot batted her aside as she drifted past. She reached out and hooked her claws into its arm, pulling it off its stable position above Cyrus. With her too close to bring its large gun to bear, it released it and hammered down on Olivia’s injury with its free hand. She let out a roar as her hand spasmed and released its hold. Right as the robot brought back its fist for another blow, Olivia pulled the robot back to her and released her grip, narrowly avoiding getting her fingers broken.

The robot floated back in her grasp, and she pried off one of its back plates as it tried to twist. She drove a hand into whatever looked delicate. The robot went still. Finally.

The moment she released her grip, it sprang back to life, driving an elbow into her ribs and grabbing her hair with its free hand. It pulled her over its shoulder, her claws leaving deep gouges in its back as Olivia held on for dear life.

She stretched her clawed toes and drove them into the robot’s gut, keeping her arms wrapped around its neck. She kicked and kicked, until the robot went still. She kicked a few more times, until her foot burst completely through the robot’s gut.

She shook her head free of its slack hand and spotted the nullifier behind her, hanging back and out of reach. Wait, there’s still air here. She stretched her wings straight out and flapped them, driving her back towards the nullifier. It had no way to change course. The moment she made contact, she reached around, wrapped an arm around it, and began to crumple the metal.

Blood, lots of blood, floated past her. Several robots had killed Cyrus, shot him in the back of the head. Slim Jim hovered nearby, looking on. Olivia roared and finished off the nullifier. Her struggle had brought her against the wall again, and again she pushed off of it straight for Slim Jim.

He looked up and summoned a good dozen tentacles. The moment she drew close, three tentacles wrapped around her and her wing. He swung with her momentum, letting her collide with the solid concrete floor instead of him. His tentacles twisted. Something popped, and Olivia’s back exploded into pain. A robot on the sidelines shot her in the head.

A massive burst of air rocked Slim Jim and Olivia. All remaining nearby robots nearly disintegrated from the force driven into them. Cyrus floated, whole and untouched. A slash of air hit Slim Jim.

Olivia ran a claw through his arm as Slim Jim released her to deal with the new threat. At the same time, a blow from Cyrus took out his knees. Slim Jim spun in the air, droplets of blood flying through the air. A gust of air bashed him against the wall. Cyrus spun him around and steadied Olivia. Slim Jim stared back, impassively, his wounds already healed.

Cyrus spat and said, “Tell me what you know.”

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Next Chapter ->

Community Service – Professional

Olivia huddled on the air conditioning unit, eyes on her knees. Her limp tail hung off the edge by her side . Gunfire rattled off in the early morning air all around, too distant to be an immediate threat. A scattering of soldiers and MHU officers . Some rushed about on one errand or another, others simply rested, nervous eyes on the surrounding streets and buildings.

Skulker teleported to her side poked her in the cheek, sniper rifle in his free hand. Not now. He poked her again. “Please stop,” she asked, her voice soft.

“How ya doin’?” he asked, brushing her wing aside and hopping up on the AC next to her.

What do you think? “I’m OK.”

He snorted. “Tha’ ain’t the truth an’ you know it.”

“I couldn’t do anything,” she burst. “I just had to stand there and watch. I hated it. I hate remembering it.” There, better? Happier I said that?

“There ya go. Not much you coulda done, ya know? But we got a new day ahead of us, can’t be all mopey.”

She sighed and looked him in the eye. “How can you sound so… chipper?”

“I ain’t got any wise words for ya, not really” he said with a shrug, expression unreadable under his mask. He rested the butt of his rifle on the corner between the AC and his leg. “But I ain’t dead yet. No reason to make myself all sad an’ miserable, won’t bring Chris back. Gotta look at other stuff. We got revenge to get, we got guns, we got like minded people ‘round us. We’re all in one piece. Kinda.” He held up his maimed hand and wiggled his three remaining fingers.

Olivia bowed her head again. That doesn’t make it better. That just makes it not worse. You shouldn’t have lost your fingers, Amanda shouldn’t have been shot, Chris should still be alive. Why can’t people leave us alone? Something in the far distance exploded. Beyond some turned heads, no one on the roof reacted.

A familiar scent caught Olivia’s nose. She whipped her head around to the open door of the roof access. Miya stomped up the stairs, sweat covering her brow and long black hair in disarray. A white armband with a red cross hung on her exposed upper arm. Olivia noticed blood spatters on her hands and forearms. Miya caught sight of her and Skulker and staggered over.

Without preamble, she spat, “Ten minutes. I lasted ten minutes in that hellhole. Too much blood and screaming. Can’t take it.” Olivia moved over, making space for Miya on the air conditioner.

“That bad?” asked Skulker.

“Yeah. Lots of wounded. Lots of dying. There’s some nanobot grey goo thing. Dissolves flesh. They think it’s on a timer or something, it pops up on people who’ve been there a while with no sign of it.” Dissolves?

“Shit. Not much you can do ‘bout that, either.”

“Yeah. I got a couple people back on their feet. That was good.” Some of the stress and anger in Miya’s voice seemed to recede with the last statement. Olivia wrapped a wing around her shoulders, pulling her closer.

A pair of patrolling soldiers walked by. One did a double take at them. I know, I’m weird. He pointed at Miya. Olivia suppressed a threatening hiss at the sudden movement.

“Hey, take that off,” he said.

Miya blinked. “What?”

“Just, just take it off. The armband. Take it off or those bots will shoot you in the head.” You care? The soldier looked wild eyed. His partner watched him with concern.

“OK, OK,” said Miya, raising a placating hand. Her other hand wrestled with the armband before finally ripping it off.

The soldier sighed and said, “Thanks.” He walked off without another word.

“Yeah, the bots targeted medics we were with,” added his partner. “It’s not like they’d have medics. Maybe mechanics. Fucking crazy.” With that, he followed after the other soldier.

The three of them on the AC exchanged glances. He was kind of nice. Right? He didn’t just ignore us, at least. And now Miya is safer.

“Man, bots suck,” said Skulker after a moment.

“No kidding,” said Miya, her voice shaky. The armband slipped through her fingers and fell to the ground. “I’m surprised they haven’t rained missiles down on us yet.”

“No way that’d work here,” said Skulker, waving a dismissive hand.

Olivia tilted her head. “What do you mean?”

“This is the fuckin’ mint,” said Skulker. “They make money here. Literally. This is a massive target for any crime boss with supers.  It’s built like the fuckin’ White House. Security’s prepared for damn near anythin’. Solid steel walls, cameras, sensors, the whole deal. Hell, tha’s jus’ the shit they tell you ‘bout on the tour. You bet yer ass there’s way more than that. Yeah, this is the safest building in the city, provided you got good people protectin’ it. An’ I think we do.”

“You’ve been here before?”

“Yeah, took tha’ tour I mentioned. Kinda cool. But yeah, this place can take near anythin’.”

“And it’s been quiet. Sort of. That seems really strange,” commented Olivia. It’s loud, actually. But no one else seems to notice, so I guess it’s just me.

“Yeah. Why hasn’t the hammer come down yet?” added Miya.

“You really don’ hear or smell anythin’, ‘liv?”

Olivia closed her eyes for a moment. The buzzing of drones, muffled by intervening buildings, reached her. Not just one. She opened her eyes pointed forward. “Drones over there. Sounds like about five.”

“Are they moving?” asked Miya.

“Um, no, I think they’re just hovering there.” Stupid things.

“Should probably tell the guy in charge up here,” said Skulker.

“Who?” asked Miya.

“That guy towards the center. No clue what his rank is.”

Together, they slid off the the big grey AC box and walked over to the soldier. Olivia hung back with Miya as Skulker explained. I’ll just be dumb and stammer. Chris was always better at talking.

“Anythin’ we can do ‘bout them?” said Skulker as he finished.

The soldier frowned. “No, not really, not from up here. Don’t have a clear line of sight.”

“Smell any bots?” Miya asked Olivia.

“Yeah, all around. There’s a lot where the drones are,” she replied. Right, I probably should have said that earlier. Stupid, stupid, stupid. But there’s so much of that oily stuff everywhere.

“You sure?” asked the soldier. Olivia nodded. “Yeah, that’s bad. Alright,  I’ll pass this on to the lieutenant.” The soldier unstrapped a radio from his belt.

“Really? You ain’t gonna fight us on this?” This is too easy. This is kind of nice.

The soldier shrugged as fiddled with the radio. “From what I hear, she’s a dragon. I ain’t gonna doubt you.” He raised the walkie talkie to his ear; they took that as their signal to leave.

“That went well,” commented Miya as they returned to their patch of the roof.

“Yeah,” agreed Olivia. “I thought he’d… I don’t know.”

“What?”

“Not believe us? He didn’t really seem that scared by me, either. It was… I don’t know. Nice?”

Miya managed a small laugh and nudged her with an elbow. “You’re not scary. Tall, sure.” I know. Tell that to everyone else.

“Not scared. Just… wary?” Is that the right word?

Skulker scoffed. “Come on. You’ve been around, what, three months now? Think of all the weird shit you’ve seen. At some point it stops bein’ weird. People roll with stuff. An’ you haven’t attacked anyone in forever.”

Olivia frowned. I know, I’m weird. I just… I don’t know. Need better self control. Her stomach growled.

“Hungry?” asked Miya. Olivia shrugged. Can you guys really hear that?

“Think we can jus’ leave?”

“Does it matter? Nothing is happening,” answered Miya.

“Yeah, but somethin’ might happen.”

“What, are they going to get pissed at us for eating food?” asked Miya.

Skulker chuckled. “At the wrong time? Yeah, absolutely. I’ll stay up here.”

Miya shrugged. “Alright. I passed by a sort of cafeteria looking thing on the way up here. They had some of those prepackaged food pack things. Want to see if there’s anything you can eat?”

“Sure,” answered Olivia. I guess I’m hungry.

“See you guys in a bit,” said Skulker with a wave. He grabbed his rifle and teleported to the edge of the roof, alongside a group of soldier manning a large tripod mounted gun.

Olivia followed Miya as they took the stairs back down into the mint. As they reached the floor below the roof, a woman rushed out of a door leading to the rest of the building. She stopped herself right before colliding with Miya. Hey.

“Oh, sorry about that,” said the woman, trying to shoulder her way past them.

“Whoa, wait, who are you?” demanded Miya, grabbing the woman’s arm. Olivia stopped alongside her and tilted her head at the woman. Wait, haven’t I seen her before? Oh, right, when we saw the lieutenant guy. She was out in the hall.

The woman in the battered charcoal grey suit curled her lip. “I’m an employee here.”

“So what are you still doing here? I haven’t see any other workers.” Miya put her hands on her hips, her brow furrowed.

“I was working late, and got trapped. That, and my car was destroyed. This area had a lot of the early fighting going on. Now, if you’ll excuse me-”

Miya tightened her grip on the woman’s arm. Miya, what’s wrong with you? “So why do I recognize you from somewhere?”

“I don’t know, and that’s not my problem. Now let go of me.”

A couple MHU officers had poked their head through the opened door, taking a look at the commotion in the stairwell. Olivia lay a hand on Miya’s shoulder. Not here. Please let go. Miya stared at the woman for a moment before releasing her grip.

“Thank you,” said the woman, her voice icy. She marched down the stairs in a huff.

Miya continued to stare after the woman, even after her footsteps receded to the point where Olivia doubted anyone else could hear them. The onlookers that had gathered dispersed, a couple throwing glances over their shoulders as they left.

“Come on,” whispered Olivia, guiding Miya to the door the charcoal suited woman had exited. It’s not worth it. And I smell food.

They made their way through the crowded hallways and grabbed some MREs from the self appointed quartermaster. Several more people, soldiers and officers alike, did double takes at the sight of Olivia. Sorry. Miya found an out of the way corner for them to sit down.

“Are you OK?” asked Olivia. You’ve been brooding. Well, more broody than usual. She ran a claw through the MRE packaging and sliced it open. 

“No. Something about that woman is off. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me.” Her face lit up. “Could you track her?”

“What?” Olivia tilted her head again. Can we just eat please?

“Track her. Like, you know, by smell or something?”

She blinked. “I guess.” Are you’re OK?

“Let’s go, come on.” Miya climbed to her feet.

Olivia stared down at the contents of the MRE on her lap. But but… Miya didn’t notice her hesitation, instead heading back for the stairs. Olivia placed her food on the floor beside her, then stood up. I guess I’ll come back for this later.

“So, she went downstairs, right?” asked Miya when she caught up.

Olivia sniffed. Um… “Yeah, follow me.”

They walked down through the mint. No one got in their way, most people too preoccupied with whatever else they had to do. Some slept in the hallways, others cleaned their rifles. Eventually, away from other people, Olivia heard a familiar voice talking down the hallway. Whoa, hang on. She held out a hand to bring Miya to a halt.

“Blackjack? Go ahead,” the woman spoke to an empty hallway. Three new scents entered the room, completely without sound. What? “We have ten minutes.”

Two different voices, men’s voices, replied, “Yes ma’am.” Three sets of footsteps headed for where Olivia and Miya stood.

“What’s happening?” whispered Miya, oblivious. “Should we call the others?”

“Back up,” Olivia whispered back. They retreated as far as they could go before reaching a dead end. Oh no, nowhere to go. The footsteps grew closer.

The woman in the charcoal suit adjusted the watch on her wrist as she passed. Her suit spasmed. The wrinkles and tears vanished, repairing themselves. In maybe three seconds, the woman wore a pristine suit that could have come fresh from the tailor. She didn’t break her stride, and the two large men behind her didn’t so much as blink, nor spare a passing glance to either side.

Miya and Olivia exchanged glances, then followed. Miya never caught sight of the people in suits, but Olivia could keep track of where they went by their footsteps. They avoided the heavily trafficked areas, but didn’t shy away from people. They headed straight for the western part of the mint, above where Olivia had met the lieutenant.

A door opened, and the footsteps stopped. “You know why we’re here. Turn yourself in,” said the woman, her voice calm. Olivia and Miya crept closer.

“No,” replied an inflectionless voice.

“Something’s happening,” whispered Olivia. They drew closer. I don’t think there’s anyone else here.

The sounds of a scuffle broke out from the room in front of them. Olivia poked her head around the corner right as it died down.

A tall, bald man in cargo pants and a thin tank top stood in the center of the room, feet slightly apart. One of the men had a pistol aimed directly at his chest. The woman stood directly in front of him, hands held behind the small of her back. The third man held his hands out in front of him, back to the others. What is he doing?

“You didn’t think Overlord is the only one who can nullify powers, did you?” asked the woman.

“No,” replied the thin man, still as emotionless as before, even with a gun aimed at him. His neutral expression didn’t flicker.

“Slim Jim,” spat Miya. She drew her pistol.

“I smell oil. From Slim Jim. Not a lot, but more than most,” said Olivia. That can’t be good.

“Yeah,” replied Miya, not listening. She marched into the room and barked, “Motherfucker!” What are you doing?

The three people in charcoal suits turned for a brief moment. “Stay away-” began the woman as Miya took aim.

In their moment of distraction, Slim Jim struck. Lightning fast, he threw a knife into the eye of the man threatening him. He ducked down and sprinted for the woman, tentacles bursting from his skin. Oh god.

Miya fired a couple shots, missing Slim Jim. Two dark green tentacles wrapped around her arms and snapped them. Her pistol clattered to the floor, discharging another shot into the air. Olivia felt a roar escape her lips. Leave her alone. The woman backed up as Slim Jim approached, reaching for her watch.

Olivia rushed forward, charging for Slim Jim. He readjusted, skidding to a halt and whipping three long tentacles towards her face. She took their blows, then wrapped a hand around one tentacle and yanked with all her might. Slim Jim didn’t budge an inch. The woman lobbed a grenade toward his chest. It exploded, rattling Olivia’s eardrums.

Slim Jim was knocked off his feet, and the tentacle in Olivia’s hand ripped from her grasp. Thin tentacles appeared all over his body, covering his wounds. Before Olivia could tell what they were doing, the grenade by his bloodied legs reformed, exploding in reverse, then exploded normally again.

Slim Jim’s body was thrown back again, and Olivia staggered backwards at the second explosion in an enclosed space. She hissed and held her hands to her ears.

Miya had struggled to her knees, red ribbons of magic surrounding her arms. Olivia staggered towards her. Miya looked up and screamed something, pointing to somewhere behind Olivia. Behind?

She whirled around to catch sight of Slim Jim standing again, all wounds on his body gone, though his clothes were tattered beyond repair. The longer combat tentacles burst from him again.

“Blackjack!” barked the woman.

The other man, the one who’d simply been standing there with arms raised, vanished right as the tentacles reached him. The plowed into the floor instead, digging deep gouges into the floor. Then, half a dozen small robots descended from the ceiling.

Each robot was only about as long as Olivia’s forearm. It had six legs sticking out of it, ending in sharp points. A small barrel stuck out of its central case. One lunged at Olivia’s face, two others circled around her, scuttling on the walls like spiders.

A sudden shot hit her shoulder, twisting her around. The lunging robot collided with her face, sharp legs jabbing at her eyes. A couple more shots rang out. Olivia slapped down the robot before it could do any damage. Before she could get her bearings back, another attacked in the same way as before. It leaped out of the way, letting Olivia claw herself in the face.

Damn it. She extended a wing and twisted, catching a third robot mid-air. She threw it to the ground and stomped down on it. She looked up to find the the robots scuttling out of sight. Olivia hissed, and nearly charged after them, before something occurred to her. Miya! She whirled around, to find her crouching over the remaining grey suit.

The woman in the charcoal suit held a hand to her chest and gasped, “Not a normal suit.”

“Yeah, you’ve still got a broken rib or three,” said Miya, her voice weary. She held a hand on the woman’s shoulder, keeping her from getting up.

“I don’t care. We need to catch him. Alive.”

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Overlord’s Robotic Legions – Scab

Miya slumped in the bed of Gears’ truck, beside Olivia. Bob, the MHU officer, sat across from them. Gears started the engine and drove past the remains of the MHU convoy in the middle of the street. Miya’s long black hair whipped around in the wind. The three massive, armored vans burned, the flames shooting up high into the night sky above.

How are we going to stop this? Can we? She stared down and flexed her hand. Fucking Overlord. Everyone remained silent. In the distance, Miya could hear gunfire and the occasional explosion all throughout the city, echoing off the skyscrapers as they moved deeper into the city and towards the mint. Didn’t know Westward had a mint. Phoenix didn’t. She glanced around at the MHU officer in the back of the truck with her.

Goggles attached to Bob’s helmet covered his eyes, along with most of his face above his cheeks, making his expression hard to read. Nonetheless, a small frown tugged at the corners of his lips. His folded arms and rifle rested on the dark grey chest plate of his body armor. He turned his head a fraction, facing her fully.

Shit. He noticed. “Did you have friends back there?” she asked, raising her voice enough to be heard over the rumbling of the truck’s engine and the rush of air around them.

He nodded and sighed. “Not the first time. Won’t be the last.”

“Sorry.” God I hate that. ‘Sorry.’ Feels so token.

They fell into silence again. Miya leaned over and bumped against Olivia, hoping to elicit any sort of reaction. Olivia’s wings twitched. She pulled her tail that had been hanging out back into the bed of the truck. OK. She’s not brain dead or anything

Bob spoke up, “Didn’t see Nomad with you.”

“You knew him?”

“Yeah. Worked with him a couple times before Marcus took over MHU.”

“He… he didn’t make it.” Miya heard a faint hiss from Olivia, almost unnoticeable under the sounds of the truck.

Bob hung his head for a moment. “Sorry to hear that. He was a good kid.”

“Yeah.” He and Olivia were the ones who came along to deal with my family bullshit.

“You knew him. Keep yourself alive and remem-” They hit a bump as Gears pulled onto the curb to avoid a bullet ridden and abandoned Army checkpoint blocking the road. Bob gave a sharp grunt and held a hand to his mouth.  “Fuck. Bit my tongue,” he muttered.

Miya smiled in spite of herself, letting out a small laugh. I’m a terrible person. Bob managed a small chuckle.

“That’ll teach me to open my mouth.”

They turned onto a larger street. Miya’s eyes widened. Whoa. The shattered remains of two tanks on either side of the road burned, smoke pouring out of them. She saw bodies.

“Whoa, stop.” Bob reached out and hit the roof of the truck’s cab. The truck, already slowing, came to a full stop.

Bob jumped off the side of the truck. Miya nudged Olivia with her elbow as she stood. After a moment, Olivia followed, her movements sluggish. The others piled out of the front.

“Techies, Bob, stay here,” ordered Jeremiah, rifle at the ready.  “Be ready to get us out of here.”

Gears remained behind the wheel; Delta joined Bob by the side of the car. Miya pulled her pistol from its holster at her hip and joined the others as they approached a row of bodies sprawled on the sidewalk. They stopped ten paces away. Miya couldn’t tear her eyes away. That’s… that’s a lot of bodies.

Jeremiah was the first to speak. “These people were executed.” Not all wore uniforms. Miya counted a man and two women in normal clothes. All had gaping wounds in the backs of their heads. Blood ran on the ground. “Put down on their knees, then a bullet to the back of their head.”

“Smells wrong,” murmured Olivia, behind Miya.

“Stop,” said Miya. Everyone froze. “What was that, Olivia?”

“Something smells wrong. Not the bodies.”

“Well, what is it?” asked Jeremiah, turning away from the bodies. Olivia’s frown deepened, her gaze distant.

“Give her some space,” said Miya.

“Smells like robot,” said Olivia in the same subdued voice.

Jeremiah snorted. “Yeah, no shit, there were robots here.”

“Hey, fuck off,” responded Skulker, sniper rifle in hand.

“Something’s still here,” said Olivia, showing no indication she’d heard either of them. “Under one of the bodies.”

That got their attention. Shit, which one? “Back up,” said Jeremiah, slowly backing away.

“When did you-” started Skulker.

“Not now,” barked Miya as she followed Jeremiah’s lead. He’s a dick, but he’s right. She gave Olivia’s wing a tug. She followed.

“I’m thinking those bodies are booby trapped,” explained Jeremiah. “Saw stuff similar in Afghanistan. With piles of trash, but same concept.”

“Can’t jus’ leave a bomb out here for some other poor fucks to stumble on.”

“They’ll probably detonate once they’re disturbed. Unless your dragon friend can smell a robot nearby, then that might be a triggerman. Bot. You get it.”

Olivia shook her head. Skulker took a knee and aimed.  “Which one?” he asked her. She pointed to a body in the middle of the row.

He fired into the body. A small explosion ripped through the sidewalk. Miya covered her head with her arms as bits of rubble and the shockwave shot past. Beside her, Olivia shook the wing she’d stretched out between Miya and the explosion, dislodging a couple flakes of concrete.

“Everyone OK?” asked Skulker, standing back up.

Every answered affirmative. “Let’s get going,” said Jeremiah.

***

“Halt!” a man yelled.

Once the truck jerked to a stop, Miya poked her head around the side. A low wall of sandbags and scrap from cars stood between them and the mint. Several large machine guns mounted to the walls or the pair of humvees aimed at their truck. The soldiers who manned them looked battered and bloodied. One was missing his helmet, another had a bloody bandage around his upper arm.

“Careful,” said Bob, his voice low. He placed his rifle on the floor and stood up with his empty hands where the soldiers could see them. “MHU and locals. Dispatch told us to come here.”

One of the soldiers responded, “Locals?”

Bob glanced at Miya. What? Oh right, we need a name. Still. She shrugged. “Yes,” answered Bob.

“Get out. Keep your hands where we can see them. We’ve had incidents.”

“Do as he says,” murmured Bob as he slowly climbed out of the truck. Miya and Olivia followed suit. The doors opened to let out the others. They clustered near the front of the truck. One of the soldiers stood, rifle still aimed at them.

“Two MHU, four local supers, and, uh, a feral.” A pause. Olivia pulled her wings in closer behind her back. “No sir. She’s with the other four. Not aggressive. Wings. Yes sir.” To them, he called out, “The feral going to be a problem?”

“She’s fine,” barked Skulker. Miya’s hands tightened into fists. Bastards.

The soldier looked to Bob, who nodded. He lowered his rifle. “Alright, let ‘em through. Go see the lieutenant, he wanted to talk with you.”

Three other soldiers ran up to the spiky metal barricade in the center of the road and pulled it to the side. They drove through, and they pulled the barricade went back. Miya saw movement in the surrounding buildings. She caught sight of uniforms. So they have the streets and buildings around the mint. Anything else?

In the street in front of the mint were parked two tanks, a couple more battle scarred humvees, and various other vehicles Miya didn’t know the names of. Soldiers and MHU officers in their dark grey armor rushed to various tasks, weapons close at hand for everyone. Temporary spotlights lit up the area.

They got a few odd looks, but by and large no one seemed to care that there was a massive pickup truck with a feral on the back driving through. They approached the black fence surrounding the four story, white stone building. Looks old. Really old. The fence curved in on either side of a set of doors, stopping at the wall of the building. Two soldiers guarded the gate. The first moved to block their way as they got out of the truck once again. The second openly stared at Olivia the whole time.

“We’ve just arrived. MHU and locals. The men at the gate told us to meet with the lieutenant,” said Jeremiah, voice confident.

“Stairs to your left, second floor. Can’t miss him,” said the first guard.

He stepped to the side and let them in. The second nodded to Olivia as they passed, though she didn’t seem to notice. Weird.

Miya visually checked over the others as they headed inside, MHU men included. Any broken bones? Bob and Jeremiah stood alert, never looking in the same place for long. They’re fine. Gears hadn’t done much besides drive the truck, and from what Miya could tell their armor was in good shape. Rob needs to repaint that armor though, if he wants any of that stuff legible. As for Skulker, she couldn’t see anything wrong. Maybe check his hand, see if anything’s gone wrong there.

Delta curled slightly at the stomach, even when standing. Need to keep an eye on her. Olivia just kept her head down, shoulders slumped. Miya bumped into her with her hip.

“Hey, you alright?” Olivia nodded, extending a wing around Miya’s shoulders. “You don’t have to worry about-” She was cut short when they entered the mint.

The wounded lay everywhere. Men and women with red cross armbands rushed between the myriad cots and stretchers on the floor. The smell of blood, piss, feces, and all sorts of other bodily fluids hit Miya’s nostrils. Olivia physically recoiled, hand held to her nose. Across the wide room frantic screaming picked up. A few doctors and nurses rushed over.

“Grey goo, grey goo!” screamed the nearest one.

“Quarantine!” roared a doctor.

Everyone backed away from the screaming, writhing man, pulling patients along with them. Two soldiers rushed over with what looked like a large metallic blanket. They pulled it over the man, sparks flying off its reflective surface. Beneath it, the man’s thrashing stilled. Shit. Shit. What the shit? Screaming robots and bodies with bombs and now whatever that was?

“Come on,” said Jeremiah, seemingly unconcerned by what had happened. He led the way towards the stairs.

Blood and soap and needles and no, no, no. Miya jumped when Olivia nudged her. No orange. Hip to hip, or as close as their wildly different heights would allow, they followed Jeremiah, trying their utmost to not look for another moment at the scene behind them.

Soon enough, they reached the second floor of the mint. The halls were lined with portraits of official looking government employees. One opened door had people constantly rushing in and out. They headed for it.

Inside was organized chaos. In the corner, a couple people with headsets operated a large radio set. A massive topographical map of the city had been attached to a wall on the opposite side of the room. A man in his thirties stood by a table in the middle, a touch of grey in his buzz cut brown hair.

“Sir,” called out Jeremiah. Sure. Let this asshole take the heat.

The man looked them over. “Give me that file.” The lieutenant thumbed through the folder an underling passed him for a few moments.

“You know us?” asked Gears.

“Yes,” answered the lieutenant, not looking up. “You were mentioned by MHU forces here. And we’ve got close to thirty soldiers and MHU officers here who said they would have died in two separate ambushes had a human dragon thing not swooped down and pummeled the ambushing robots long enough for them to get away.”

Olivia’s eyes didn’t leave the ground. The lieutenant closed the file and leaned forward, hands on the desk.

“One of you was put through Overlord’s experiments. Another of you was shot by his robots. Another stole from him. And finally another one of you is on his radar for future experiments. You’re no friends of him,” he said, looking Miya directly in the eye.

She nodded. I will kill him. Him, Slim Jim, and Doctor Orange.

“Welcome aboard. We’ve gotten some metahuman volunteers, but you’re the last organized group. The Bratva was getting rounded up and slaughtered last we knew, and we’ve heard nothing from the Watch, Cyrus, or the Company here. Our own metahuman units were targeted and killed nearly to a man. They have some way of blocking powers.”

“Yeah, the big bots,” broke in Skulker. “Not the armored ones with big guns, the lighter ones with the antennae outta their backs.” He motioned to Miya. “Mages aren’t affected. Neither was Olivia.”

“Who?” Skulker jerked his head to Olivia. “Ah. Odd, but I’ll take it. Their range?”

“Dunno. No time to test.”

“I understand. Spread the word.”

“Cyrus,” murmured Olivia.

“What was that?” asked the lieutenant. He stared at Olivia.

“Um, one of those big robots had Cyrus. I stopped it, and Cyrus flew away.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know, sorry.”

The lieutenant cursed. “We need everyone who can hold a gun without shooting their foot off, metahuman or no. Our communications are shot. I’m the highest ranking one here. We found the police chief dead in his own home. We’re not sure where the MHU chief is.

“Marcus. He’s a mage,” said Bob.

“Dispatch says he was getting orders from Marcus right before HQ was overrun,” added Jeremiah.

“Then you two find your dispatcher. From there figure out where Marcus is. If he’s outside our perimeter, come to me.”

The two MHU officer nodded. “Yes sir.”

“Good luck,” added Bob to Miya as he left.

The lieutenant continued, “You two techies, get out to the motor pool. Might have something for you.”

“We’d rather stay with the rest of our team, sir,” said Delta.

“Not an option. But if we have an operation outside our perimeter, you all will be in the same unit. Healer mage, you get back down to ground floor, report to Doc Miller. Flyer and sniper, rooftop.”

Miya opened her mouth to protest. Not going back down to that hell. No. Before she could, Delta said, “We’ll do our best.” She shepherded everyone outside before Miya could react. No, no, no.

Once out of earshot of the lieutenant, Delta said, “Sorry. I’m sorry. But fighting him is not worth it.”

“What? Splittin’ up ain’t a good idea, hon,” said Skuker, good hand on the knife at his belt.

“I know. But our comms work. First sign of trouble and we meet back at the front door, OK? And that guy was right. Miya can heal someone better than anyone else can. Olivia has better eyes and ears than anyone here.”

Everyone but Miya nodded. “I…” she began. What am I supposed to say? Everyone’s ready to do this. Fuck.

Miya spun on her heels and shouldered her way past a woman in a scuffled, charcoal grey suit as she headed back downstairs. Overlord’s head on a spike. That’s what I’m working for.

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Overlord’s Robotic Legions – Mechanized

Amanda hunched over her desk, tightening the screw on the side of the railgun prototype. A quick glance at the comm radio told her Olivia and Skulker still hadn’t called in. It’s working, right? She grabbed the comm, a ham radio she’d tinkered with, and checked the back. Still plugged in. All lights are green.

She shook her head and returned to the railgun. Quit worrying. I didn’t mess up. They’re fine. From the other side of the lair, she heard Miya’s knife carve into bone once again. She’s facing the door, and I think she said she can see through her golem outside. We’re fine.

The case of the railgun clicked as she forced the butt of the gun casing into place. Two more screws. Then it’ll be done. To her left, her computer hummed quietly as she finished the railgun.

She slapped the screwdriver down on the desk and arched her back. Her hand shot to her upper stomach as a lance of pain made her regret trying to work out the soreness in her back. She gritted her teeth and checked the clock on a computer.

How long has it been since my last painkiller dose? Almost time. Early couldn’t hurt. She rifled through her backpack on the floor by her foot. Her fingers scrambled at the cap of the orange bottle. She got the cap off, shook out a few little white pills onto her unsteady palm, then stopped herself. No, no, I need to start easing myself off those. I’ve still got one hour to go.

“Got it all wired up?” asked Rob over his shoulder as he worked at the desk behind her. She dropped the pills on the desk and spun her office chair to face him.

“Yep. Should be ready to go any time. And what are those?”

He set down what appeared to be a grenade next to a couple of its twins. “Wirepatches. Thing is, they’re good for makin’ a lotta light cuts. Robot couldn’t give less of a shit, wires’d bounce right off, maybe scuff the metal up a bit.”

“What exactly do they do?” she asked.

“Spit out tons of wires that cut up any exposed flesh.” He rolled his chair over to join her. “So anythin’ else I need to do for this?”

“Nope. Just thought you’d like to see the fruits of your labor. I had to alter a couple things, too.” She tapped casing of the rifle shaped railgun he’d designed.

“Alright, what exactly you change?” he asked. Why do you… oh, right, for future models.

“Not much. I drilled in a hole for this little red light.” She tapped a portion of the case above the trigger. “It’ll light up red once a thousand rounds have been fired.”

His brow furrowed. “Those rails can take just shy of fifteen hundred, why a only thousand?”

“Early warning. You wouldn’t want it to tell you it’s useless right when you need it. A thousand rounds is more than you’d be able to carry anyways.”

“Oh shit, right. How’d we not think of that earlier?”

“Don’t worry, I caught it. No need to worry your simple mechanical mind.”

“Har har.”

“I also had to force the power source in, it needs about two millimeters more room. Oh, I don’t know if this will ruin the durability, but from what I can tell, we can get rid of that solid disk a quarter of the way from the muzzle.” At least, I think we can. Whatever, we’ll figure it out once we shoot this thing.

“Solid disk? You mean one of the-”

“The support things, yes,” said Amanda. “Couldn’t think of the word for a moment. That would also cut down on the weight.”

“If weight is a concern, we could make the disks like wheel spokes, rather than solid. I just made ‘em solid cuz that’s easy. But yeah, next time I’ll look at that.”

Amanda glanced at him. “Other than those things, it’s good, I suppose.”

He inclined his head with a smirk. “Why thank you.” They realized only an inch separated their faces. At the same time, they both leaned back in their chairs. Rob rubbed the back of his head as Amanda readjusted her glasses, staring straight ahead. What the hell was that?

She broke the silence. “So, um, I was thinking. Maybe use it as a stun gun?”

“Uh, how?”

“Well, maybe modify the projectiles? Rather than just a slug, it could fire a hollow charged round.” I’d love to research this, but of course the internet is out. And thousands of shut-ins across the city are losing their minds.

Rob shrugged. “I guess that’s possible, but that’s black magic as far as I know.”

Oh come on. “No, there’s no magnetism involved with charging it, theoretically. The magnetism is what moves it.” It’s not that hard.

He gave her a blank stare. I explained this to you a ton already. She spun in her chair and wiggled her computer mouse, looking for the cursor. Fine, whatever. Need to program this anyways.

“What?” said Rob. “You ain’t that good at explainin’ stuff. ”

“Am too.”

“What’s that do?” he asked, pointing to a section of code on the screen.

“I don’t know, but if I get rid of it everything stops working.”

“Seriously?” he asked.

“Seriously,” she repeated back.

He blinked. “I couldn’t fuckin’ stand that.”

Amanda glanced at the complex mass of gears of his partially disassembled armor and asked, “You know how all that works?”

“Yeah. If I don’t know what a gear does, it ain’t goin’ in ‘til I figure it out. Actually almost done. Just need to put some pieces back together.”

“And believe me, I’d love for that to be the case here. But if it works, don’t question it.”

“But I am questionin’ it.”

“Welcome to the wonderful world of coding. Suck it up,” she said with a smirk.

“Ew. I’ll pass.”

“Excuse me?” asked a woman’s voice. Amanda whipped her head around to the source of the unfamiliar voice.

A woman in an impeccable charcoal grey suit stood just inside the closed and locked back door. Miya, halfway across the lair, looked up from her bone carving and nearly jumped out of her seat. Rob, poised halfway out of his seat next to Amanda, reached for the screwdriver.

“Please, stay seated. We only have some questions for you,” the woman said in an even, pleasant tone. Her empty hands rested in front of her, a grey metal watch on her wrist. She simply stood by the door, posture easy and relaxed.

Rob and Amanda exchanged glances. Who? What? Why?

The woman took their silence as acceptance. “You three are Amanda Lafitte, Miyahuatl Teixeira, and Robert Alderman, correct?”

“Yeah, who are you?” replied Rob. If the woman noticed he now stood with a screwdriver in hand, she didn’t show it. Amanda’s eyes flickered towards her armor. No time to get that on. If I move quick I can grab a baton, though.

“You may call me Smith. The others, Benjamin Alderman, Christopher Collins, and the feral Olivia are absent, correct?” Is that a code name, or just a fake last name? No way in hell that’s your real name.

“Yeah,” said Rob. Amanda kicked him in the shin. What are you doing?

The woman nodded and said, “Amanda, you accessed the records of the Houston Feral Research Institute after you had broken Olivia out.” Amanda felt the blood drain from her face. I’m pretty sure that’s a federal offense.

In the same pleasant tone, Smith continued, “The records in question were Olivia’s blood samples. After we did some digging, we found that the records had been changed in a rather clandestine way. Was this your doing?”

Oh shit. Let’s test the waters. Before Rob could speak up, Amanda said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I would ask that you do not insult my intelligence. So long as you do not continue this behavior in the future, no charges will be pressed. We have larger concerns. What we really need to know is why you did this.” The woman held Amanda’s gaze.

“We didn’t change anything. We were checking on something.”

“Something?”

“Yes.”

“Do not play coy with us. We can and will bury you if you do not cooperate.” The room grew very still.

Well, what’s the harm in telling her? We were just looking at the number of blood samples. “Just the number of blood samples. Three of them vanished when we broke her out.”

“And why would you check on that?”

Amanda glanced at Miya. “We had suspicions. About Overlord. We think one of the doctors was working for him.”

Damn government spook. Hold on, how do we know she’s with the government? Amanda looked Smith over again. She never gave a badge or what agency she worked for. Despite the fact that Rob and Miya looked ready and able to stab her, Smith remained calm. She wouldn’t be calm if she wasn’t able to handle us. Or maybe that’s just what she wants us to think. Or maybe… fuck it.

“Based on?” asked Smith.

“He vanished,” said Amanda.

“I heard him mentioned before,” said Miya.

Smith nodded and stayed silent for a moment. To Miya she said, “In the report you gave to the police after Freedom Fighter’s attack, you claimed you had been experimented on by Overlord. Documents seized in the aftermath corroborated this. The real question is how you managed to identify an Overlord agent.”

“I know what I saw and heard,” replied Miya.

Smith paused again. “Olivia left before more comprehensive tests of her abilities could be administered. Though her abilities are magic based, they are far more varied and powerful than any typical mage’s. This begs the question of how exactly she manipulates that amount of magical energy.”

“She don’t know, an’ we don’t either. If your white coats can’t figure it out, then we got nothin’,” said Rob, his voice heated. A tiny frown tugged at the corners of the woman’s mouth.

“It’s unconscious,” added Miya. “She doesn’t control it.”

“Very well.” Smith looked at her watch and hit a button on the side. “Blackjack, if you would?” Who?

A man materialized behind Rob. Before Amanda could shout a warning, an arm wrapped around her neck. She thrashed, her air supply cut off. A needle pierced the side of her neck. Her struggles grew sluggish as the man behind her murmured something, the words lost to her as she blacked out.

***

“Delta! Delta!” Skulker’s voice screamed from the comm.

Amanda snapped back to reality, her head foggy. She sat in her chair, the completed railgun before her. It’s done? Oh shit, right. Her neck itched as she leaned in and pressed the button on the radio to talk back. Behind her, Rob and Miya stirred to life in their chairs .

“What? What is it?”

“‘liv’s hurt,” barked Skulker, his voice fuzzy through the static.

“What hap-” Amanda cut herself off. Rob appeared by her side.  No time. Priorities. “Where are you?”

“Library. Lakewood.”

That’s… shit, I can’t look it up. Where is that? “Where?”

“North, on Kipling.” She heard a couple gunshots over the radio.

“We’ll get there as soon as we can.” She received no reply. Rob grabbed his keys and shotgun.

“What about curfew?” asked Miya, jogging up behind them. “There were tanks out there.”

“An’ I don’t give a shit,” said Rob, looming over Miya. “That’s my brother out there.”

“We won’t be able to help if we’re dead.”

“Won’t be able to do anythin’ here either. You wanna stay here or come with?”

Miya bit her lip for a moment. “I’ll come.”

“What about you, Amanda?” Rob asked, turning to her.

And be the only one here while Olivia and Ben are fighting for their lives? No thanks. “Yes. Give me one second.” Rob nodded.

Painkillers. As she reached down for her bag, she noticed three of them on her desk. What? Whatever, not important right now. She scooped them up and swallowed them dry.

That taken care of, Amanda jumped out of her chair, ignoring the lance of pain in her upper stomach. Need the neutralizer, baton, and helmet. No time for full armor. She spared the railgun a glance. No, not for this. She grabbed her gadgets and put on her helmet. Beside her, Rob strapped a long knife to his belt and slipped on his grinning mask. What’s his code name? Gears, right.

Miya passed her a pistol and a couple spare magazines as they followed Gears to his truck out back. Miya’s golem climbed into the bed of the truck and they were off.

The drive only took three minutes, but Amanda kept twisting her head around, on the lookout for anyone else on the road. I’d like to get through the night without getting shot. That’s all I ask. She heard tapping from Miya in the seats behind her. Amanda checked her gear, making sure it all worked. Her eyes flickered over the controls in her helmet. Damn it, should have at least brought that glove. Would make this easier.

She called up Skulker again. “Any news?” she asked.

“No. We’re holed up at the front. ‘liv is out, bots are circlin’ ’round. Purifier’s coverin’ them. Heard sirens earlier.”

“Alright. We’re close. Don’t shoot us.”

Skulker chuckled and cut the line. The library and several spotlight drones overhead came into view. Several bots fired at the front entrance. Amanda thought she saw a muzzle flash from the door. Wait, why isn’t Rob slowing down? Everyone in the truck jostled as Gears drove straight over a curb. They barreled right for the front door.

“Down!” barked Gears, ducking down and jerking the wheel. What are you doing? Amanda screamed on the inside as she joined him in throwing herself down on the floor of the cab. Gunfire shattered the windows and bullets zipped by overhead.

The truck skidded to a stop. “Move, now,” bellowed Gears.

Amanda jerked her head up and scrambled for the door handle, bullets hammering the armored flank of the truck. She tumbled out of the car, right in front of the library. Miya’s golem burst out of the back and charged towards the bot.

“Delta, here!” yelled Skulker, waving to her from behind the bullet ridden front door.

She climbed to her feet and dashed to the door, the pain in her stomach drowned out by the rush of adrenaline. Behind her, she heard a couple thuds from Gears’ shotgun, followed by Miya’s feet hitting the ground.

Amanda joined Skulker in the library. Olivia lay bleeding and unconscious in the corner. Amanda rushed over to her. What the hell happened? Gears and Miya ran in moments later.

“Bots circlin’ ‘round in the buildin’, Purifier’s keepin’ ‘em back,” said Skulker in a rush. “How we gettin’ out?”

“Truck,” said Rob.

“The golem has the bots’ attention. Not sure how long. They’re organized.” Miya froze. “And… fuck. Army is here.”

Delta checked Olivia’s wounds; a great variety of cuts and lacerations all over. Not too bad. No major bleeding, I think. Just a lot of little things. OK. I think she’s OK.

“The actual army?”

“Yeah, guys in camo and humvees. They’re coming in from two different sides. They’re shooting the bots now. I’m bringing the golem back.”

“We need to move,” said Rob, grabbing Olivia’s arm and hauling her up.

“Grab Purifier,” said Skulker, wrapping Olivia’s other arm around his shoulders. Together, they dragged her towards the truck, their heads ducked down.

Maybe this will fuck up the robots. Delta hit the switch on the spike. Neutralizer on. Unless they’re hard wired to each other, the bots can’t talk now. She and Miya ran further into the library. It didn’t take them long to find who they were looking for.

An armoured man with an enormous curved axe held overhead bulled towards a cluster of bots. Yep, that’s Purifier. Rather than firing, the robots pulled back and spread out between the bookshelves. The axe cleaved down on empty air.

“The fuck is that? The fuck is that?” asked Miya, backing away with widened eyes. Delta grabbed her arm and pulled her down. A couple bullets whizzed through the air where she’d stood not moments ago.

“Focus,” snapped Delta, drawing her pistol.

Miya nodded and drew her own. They moved to the side of Purifier and opened fire on the bots, weaving their way through the book shelves. Some sort of hot shock wave burst from Purifier, toppling shelves, women, and robots alike. Damn it. Delta dodged out of the way of a falling shelf of books, loosing track of Miya.

A robot, minus its rifle, pulled itself out from under a bookshelf in front of her. As Delta took aim, the robot held up a hand and begged, “Oh god, please don’t kill me.”

Delta froze. The robot lunged forward and tackled her to the ground. Her pistol flew out of her grasp as she hit the ground. The robot wasted no time, climbing on top of her and striking down at her throat. She twisted, letting her shoulder take the blow. The next punch rammed into her helmet. She struggled to get her arms free. The next blow to the head got a cracking sound from her helmet.

She tore her left arm out from under the bot’s leg. The blows stopped. Knife! She grabbed the electric baton at her side and shoved it into the robot’s armpit as it raised its knife. The robot spasmed and collapsed. Its screaming cut off.

Oh thank god. She coughed, rolling the still robot off of her. Helmet’s broken. Don’t think I have a concussion. She sat upright and returned her baton to her hip. Miya jogged up to her. She offered her hand to help her up.

“Bots ran off, lots of army guys outside battling it out with them. Come on.”

“Wait, hang on. This one’s intact.” Delta checked the downed robot. I could totally use this.

“Are you insane? Leave it. We don’t wanna get tracked,” said Miya. Purifier joined them, axe in a sheathe on his back. Miya gave him a sideways glance and edged away.

“This spike thing is keeping them from communicating.” Delta tapped the spike in question on her hip. “Should keep them from tracking us, too.”

“What? How?” asked Miya.

“Destructive interference. Just trust me on this.”

“That’s really not a good idea.”

“Thanks for the help, but that’s a terrible idea,” added Purifier. “We should get out of here.”

But… there’s so much I could learn. Something outside exploded, snapping her back to reality. Later. She and the others sprinted back to the truck. Gears hit the gas the moment the last person climbed in and sent the truck thundering through the parking lot turned battleground.

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